HILMA at The Wilma is produced in partnership with New Georges!
The early-20th-century queer mystic and artist Hilma af Klint channeled hundreds of paintings through messages from otherworldly forces, hoping to communicate the mysteries of the universe. Only recently rediscovered and hailed as one of the first-ever abstract artists, she worked in obscurity during a time that was not yet ready to receive her message. This contemporary opera – with a score that mixes genres from opera, rock, pop, and musical theater – wrestles with the hubris and humility that fueled one woman’s spiritual quest.
produced by The Wilma Theater
in partnership with New Georges
words by Kate Scelsa
music by Robert M. Johanson
directed by Morgan Green
with Sarah Gilko, J. Moliere, Brett Robinson, Kristen Sieh, Evan Spigelman
choreography Lisa Fagan co-orchestrator/band leader Granville Mullings dramaturg Jackie Tileston
set design Krit Robinson costume design Maiko Matsushima lighting design Oona Curley sound design Chris Sannino
ABOUT HILMA AF KLINT The courageous, revolutionary, but largely unexamined abstract painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) stipulated that most of her 1,000 plus paintings be kept from public view until at least twenty years after her death. Relegated to the footnotes of the Swedish Theosophy and Spiritualist movements for nearly a century, af Klint did not receive full recognition for her revolutionary body of work until a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018, which became the museum’s most attended exhibit of all time — maybe you were there (perhaps that’s you below?)!
When Hilma began creating radically abstract paintings in 1906, they were like little that had been seen before: bold, colorful, and untethered from any recognizable references to the physical world. It was years before Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and others would take similar strides to rid their own artwork of representational content. Yet while many of her better-known contemporaries published manifestos and exhibited widely, af Klint kept her groundbreaking paintings largely private. She rarely exhibited them and was convinced the world was not yet ready to understand her work. Ultimately, her work was all but unseen until 1986, and only over the subsequent three decades have her paintings and works on paper begun to receive serious attention.
WATCH Who is Hilma? Episode One of The Wilma’s documentary on the making of HILMA!
IN PROCESS Morgan on seeing Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life at the Tate Modern, London, summer 2023: “I missed the Guggenheim exhibit in 2019 bc I was…asleep ?? So getting to see her work in person felt really important.
As soon as I got in front of the evolution series I had to sit down. I was so moved by her bravery, knowing that she was making these paintings that didn’t look like anything she had seen before.
Her skill in the more traditional styles was amazing as well. Her landscapes are beautiful and the delicacy of the botanicals — she is taking such care with these, observing so closely.
The pink series makes me feel light-headed, wrapped in a fuzzy blanket… and I wondered if Hilma would like Barbie.
It feels like she has secret knowledge that she is trying to communicate to us. The message is mysterious, but it’s doing something to my interior. And I know she didn’t really know either. So I guess three cheers for feeling but not necessarily knowing.
These paintings challenge the separation between life and art because her painting process was her life in so many ways. When I texted a friend to say what I was doing today I said I was going to see Hilma. Not Hilma’s paintings. But the woman herself. And it feels right, in this case, that the work and the woman are one. And also if she’s present in someway as I think she is, her spirit is there in the work.
She doesn’t sign her paintings as far I can tell. There are many letters and words and symbols but never a signature. Authorship didn’t seem to be what mattered to her.
The ten largest feels like the closest thing I’ve got to church.”
Kate & Robert tell Morgan about the process of writing HILMA:
ROBERT: How do you remember us coming up with this thing?
KATE: It was 2020. We had been writing over Zoom for our band. I mean, I don’t know how you felt psychologically during that moment, but I felt like, whether I was in denial or not, that this isolation was sort of fine. Because I had a lot to work on.
R: Yes, 2020 we both had a lot we were working on and that felt good.
K: There was an instinct to keep that going. And we had both seen Hilma’s show at the Guggenheim and talked about it, and I had gotten the Guggenheim catalog. It was sitting on my shelf and of course I hadn’t opened it. And she was really staring down at me, so I pulled that catalog down and started reading it. Usually a book of essays about an artist is really boring to me, because I’m just thinking, “let me enjoy the art,” but Hilma always brings out really interesting things in people who are talking about her.
R: So we decided let’s write about Hilma, and we wrote “What Would It Look Like” first.
K: Yeah, that was the first song.
R: Sometimes you start a piece and you’re fumbling around for a long time trying to figure out, “Is this something that’s going to work?” But the combination of what you wrote lyrically and then what I wrote musically it seemed like, for lack of a better phrase, a big Broadway number.
K: I remember where I was when I wrote it. I was in the backyard of what was then our new house. And I had asked this woman I know who works with spirit guides, I said, “Can you check in and make sure Hilma wants this? Wants us to write about her?” And she said, “Yes, but she’s gonna be there with you.” I said, “Okay,” and then I sat down and I wrote out longhand on paper, which I don’t usually do, the lyrics to “What Would It Look Like.” And it came very, very easily.
R: I don’t know if you even told me that before I wrote the music, but it was the same thing for me. It came very quickly. And then we figured out the structure of the whole thing pretty early on.
K: Because we didn’t want to do this total biopic thing.
R: No, that seemed a little boring.
K: You know, you’re writing about this person who’s doing really experimental, abstract work and then you’re going to talk about her in this really traditional format?
R: That would be missing the point of why we were interested.
K: I was thinking a lot about this idea of the Spiral Temple and the idea of ascension. And thinking, can we make a musical version of that?
R: And make it more choral, where there would be a leader but the leader would change.
K: I started sending you these recordings of me ranting. Because the more I was reading, the angrier I was getting [laughter] about Rudolph Steiner. And I was also sort of going through this pandemic experience of having a lot of time to think about what really matters and about our relationship to our own ambition and what happens when there’s no place to put that ambition. What does it mean to make work that you can’t show anyone or you won’t show anyone? Or you show it to people and they’re not interested in it?
R: I make a lot of stuff that nobody sees anyway, so I’m always kind of okay just making things that way.
K: But that’s what I appreciate about you. That makes the work not precious and allows it to exist without some sort of outside expectation about what it has to be. You make it because you enjoy making it.
R: Yeah, that can actually be enough.
K: But I think that’s really rare. And it’s absolutely what I need in a collaborator. Also someone who doesn’t mind the levels of emotion I’m bringing to the table. That’s from my Scorpio moon. I was laughing so hard in our workshop today because you stepped in for someone and you had to sing about your “cancer moon.” And that line in act three is about us: “my cancer moon is more reserved/your Scorpio moon likes the drama of large pronouncements.” Sorry, we are totally going off the rails now.
M: No, it’s good!
K: So there’s something there that, when I hand you lyrics, and I’m thinking, “Here’s this thing from the deepest depths of my most tortured soul,” and you’re like, “yeah okay, cool.” There’s no, “what is this???” That’s very reassuring. And act three was like that, was me ranting and feeling all these feelings about Hilma’s story and art making and gatekeepers and what gets considered important and what we have to do as artists to wrestle with all of these demons of doubt. I don’t usually record myself and I was recording this ranting and then transcribing it. “I gotta get this down! What I’m saying is very important!” Then we went through together and picked out the little things that we thought were interesting and created a kind of arc of ranting.
R: Yeah, and that’s act three.
K: And that’s act three.