How Antique Books and Jungian Psychology Inspired Heikedine Guenther’s Meditative Canvases

Next year Switzerland's Goetheanum will host an exhibition of her work alongside paintings by Hilma af Klint.

Heikedine Günther, at her home in Basel's old town, Gemsberg.
Heikedine Günther, at her home in Basel's old town, Gemsberg.

In German artist Heikedine Guenther’s colorful canvases, radiant orbs float against luminescent fields to color. These forms are symbolic, says the artist, of the kern, a German word that translates as “core.” The core has a dual meaning — both as a seed of growth and as the essence of the psychological self.

Guenther’s work has long had a contemplative bent, and with the past months, her interest has returned even more so to the essence of life, such as family, friends, and health. Ahead of her exhibition alongside the 19th-century visionary artist Hilma af Klint at Switzerland’s Goetheanum next year, Guenther reveals how she found inspiration during the quarantine period, the importance of digitalization for the art market, and how old books and manuscripts have influenced her oeuvre. 

Heikedine Guenther, Core No. 440 (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Heikedine Guenther, Core No. 440 (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

This year has been a trial for all of us. How did you experience the quarantine period?

Personally, the quarantine was a catalyst for ideas that had lain dormant. After the initial chaos, I experienced a period void of distractions, with intense concentration on the essential, as well as a return to self. These reflections are represented in my three new series “Connected”, “Duality – Non-Duality” and “Separation of Light & Darkness.” They are a progression and reduction of form and colors from my previous works.

Times of social unrest and upheaval have, historically, been well-documented by artists of those eras. How do you think artists are responding to this time in history?

Every crisis is an opportunity for change. Times of uncertainty allows us to focus on what is essential, such as family, friends, and health. Likewise, in the art world, this means coming back to what is relevant and not overhyped.

The happenings of 2020 will have a large impact on the future of our culture and art. As we have seen time and time again, there are at least three types of artists. The documenter (e.g. George Grosz), the visionary (e.g. Joseph Beuys), as well as the invariant artist (e.g. Edward Hopper). George Grosz captured the feelings of the First World War. On the other hand, Joseph Beuys founded the Fluxus movement out of his experience from the Second World War. In contrast, Edward Hopper continued to create atmospheric sceneries detached from the larger events of the 20th century.

I do not know how each individual artist will react to this situation. However, I try to use this time to bring my philosophy of “the core” into consciousness.

How do you think the current change to a predominantly online art market will affect artists?

It has been clear that the internet is changing the art world for some time — in terms of personal branding, direct sales, and sales platforms or digital shows. But most artists and galleries wanted to stick to their old ways. Now, with the restrictions, everyone has to change. This includes small galleries as well as established fairs like Art Basel. 

Having a strong online presence has become more and more relevant. The search algorithms and optimized content are now more important than expert opinion. This popularity contest can be for better or worse, but is a shift of power from the traditional art institutions to modern platforms. For me personally, the internet is one of my main distribution channels, and I am overwhelmed with world-wide direct online sales.

Your husband is a renowned dealer of old books and manuscripts. Has this unique look into history inspired your oeuvre?

Yes of course. Medieval manuscripts are foundational to western culture and art. Their content is still present in our everyday life. My extensive exposure to history and book painting has offered me many references from which I draw inspiration. Tenth-century Ottonian book paintings are among my favorites. They use a symbolic language of large-scale color fields. Back then, few people could read, which meant that the visual parts of the book had to be even more convincing. This is why Ottonian book paintings are so powerful and speak to our subconscious. Even Mark Rothko used many of the color combinations found in Ottonian manuscripts, begging the question of whether he too was inspired by them or if he discovered his color combinations another way.

Heikedine Günther, Core No. 272 (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Heikedine Günther, Core No. 272 (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Next year, you will be exhibited alongside Swedish artist Hilma af Klint in Switzerland. Throughout her lifetime, women in many fields turned to Spiritualism as a way to overcome gender conventions—a topic that is still relevant today. How do you relate to her, personally, and within your work?

I feel honored to be connected with Hilma af Klint. She was well ahead of her time with her language of abstraction of shapes and colors which are understood intuitively. Her art speaks to me because we both use the micro-macrocosm duality as our Leitmotiv. Hilma takes inspiration from botany and crystal formations, while I turn to nature and seeds as themes in my work. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hilma af Klint was living and working in Dornach around Basel, where she was interacting with Rudolph Steiner. Now around a hundred years later (June 2021), I will have a co-exhibition with Hilma af Klint’s works at the Goetheanum in that same city.

Artists have historically found inspiration from their predecessors. Which three artists do you admire most?

In the initial phase of my work with the core, I took inspiration from the 11th-century artist Hildegard von Bingen. She was one of the most impressive and influential female figures in our history. Her creations are so wide-ranging that the only way to describe her is as a polymath and artist. Every time you engage with her you will discover new depths.

Another artist that is dear to me is Mark Rothko. He is the master of creating sublime art, which draws you in. His color combinations and paint techniques create the most powerful experience.

Lastly, Richard Long is a landscape artist that works with fundamental material on an enormous scale. He engages with the primal symbol of the circle. These raw ingredients remind you of primeval times while formally moving towards total reduction.

Heikedine Guenther, Core No. 424 (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Heikedine Guenther, Core No. 424 (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Within your work, you explore the essence of life and the potential for growth. How did you come to this and do you believe one’s essence changes during a lifetime?

We are at the beginning of the digital age but we humans have not changed much for millions of years.  Only the surrounding world is changing at an ever-increasing speed. Thus, in stillness, we find ourselves longing to return to the essential.

After contemplating the writings of C. G. Jung, I found myself drawn to the symbol of the core and I transitioned from figurative painting to abstract art. I have worked with this symbol since, however, I am still experiencing its ever-changing perspectives and nuances. The core is present in all life, religions, and cultures as a symbol of potential, growth, and new beginnings – exactly what we should focus on in these uncertain times. 

To express this, I try to bring a total reduction and abstraction of shape and color to my work, thereby showing the duality and interplay between the microcosm and macrocosm.


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