Although as a Russian specialist I had long known of the abstract art that became popular in the early twentieth century as part of the Bolshevik experiment, I hadn’t realized until I read this novel that the first abstract painters included a group of five Swedish women, three of whom—Hilma af Klint, Anna Cassel, and Cornelia Cederberg—were painters. The Friday Night Club—so called because the women met every Friday—counterposes the historical story and letters of the group with a contemporary timeline featuring Eben Elliott, an employee of the Guggenheim Museum charged with organizing an exhibit of Klint’s paintings.
Like the Friday Night Club itself, the novel is a collaboration among three authors—Sofia Lundberg, Alyson Richman, and M.J. Rose. I was eager to find out more about both their subject and their writing process, so read on to find out what they have to say.
Although I’ve long known about Wasily Kandinsky, it was news to me that Hilma af Klint preceded him and the other, better-known abstract artists. Indeed, like one of your characters, I at first confused Klint with Gustave Klimt. What made you all want to write a novel about Hilma and her collaborators?
The inspiration for our novel, The Friday Night Club, first came about after a visit to the Hilma af Klint exhibit, Paintings for the Future, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2019.
At the museum, one of us noticed a small caption underneath a black-and-white photograph of Hilma that mentioned the artist had created a special group called the Friday Night Club, which consisted of her and four other women—Anna Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Mathilda Nilsson, and Sigrid Hedman—who gathered each week to provide one another artistic and spiritual sustenance and often performed séances in an attempt to channel spirits to guide them in their work. None of the other four were mentioned anywhere else in the exhibit, and, as we later learned, for all intents and purposes, they have since been relegated to being just a footnote in the now famous and celebrated Hilma’s personal history. Immediately, the question of who these four women were began to simmer, and the idea of a novel started to unfold around our desire to discover more about them.
The three of you collaborated on this novel. The end product is seamless, but what was the experience of collaboration like? What pluses and minuses come from working together?
It was actually seamless. While all three of us would divide and conquer our research—Sofia Lundberg in Sweden examining the journals and written materials of Hilma af Klint and Mathilda Nilsson in the Royal Swedish Archives, and Alyson Richman and M.J. Rose using materials written in English—we transcended the distance between us to work on a unified objective. We wanted to learn what drove these women to come together to seek higher knowledge and to pursue an artistic endeavor like The Paintings for the Temple, at a time when women had such few opportunities, outside of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. There really weren’t any minuses to the collaboration because we all had tremendous respect for each other as writers and we were always exchanging information we were uncovering through our research. Probably the only challenge was trying to make sure when we began working on each of our sections each morning that we retrieved the most current manuscript from Dropbox!
How did you decide to counterpose the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century story of Hilma and her friends with a twenty-first-century (fictional) story about the (real) exhibit at the Guggenheim that inspired your work?
Being an art lover usually means being curious about the shows themselves and how they’re curated—so we wanted to build upon those parallels. The idea of showing the creating of the modern-day exhibit was part of the idea from the beginning. Once we began doing our early research about the Friday Night Club, or De Fem as they called themselves, we realized there were serious questions about how the group helped Hilma. And it seemed only natural that those questions should be explored in the present-day storyline.
Spiritualism plays an important part in this novel, represented by the characters Mathilda and Sigrid. Could you talk a bit about that element and what, if anything, it meant for you as authors?
At least one of us is heavily interested in spiritualism and we knew it had to play an essential part of the book once we learned through our research that every Friday night this group of creative women held séances in an effort to speak to the spirits and find artistic guidance and inspiration for their work.
Since Hilma, although underestimated, has still received more recognition than her fellow painters Anna Cassel and Cornelia Cederberg, could you tell us a bit about them?
Anna Cassel and Cornelia Cederberg’s early artistic training mirrored Hilma’s. They both received artistic training in Slöjdskolan (now known as Konstfack), a premier art school in their teenage years, and this is actually where they met each other. After they graduated, only Anna and Hilma were accepted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, which was a very big milestone for a woman and aspiring artist in the nineteenth century. Anna leaned toward landscape painting, and from what we learned from our research and interviews with family members, she was perhaps more reserved than Hilma but still extremely determined to carve out a unique life for herself as an artist.
We learned Cornelia also made a significant contribution within the group as she was responsible for making the automatic drawings during the Friday night séances. She also allegedly created many of the shapes that occur in Hilma’s paintings.
And what of the fictional Blythe and Eben Elliott? Could you give us a brief description of them and how their story parallels or contrasts with the lives of “The Five”?
Eben and Blythe are both art historians and lovers in the past who attended graduate school together at the Courtauld in London. She is very engaged in spiritualism, and Eben doesn’t believe in it—and that is part of what drove them apart. In some ways we think their relationship will mirror some of our readers who will come to this story as skeptics but in the end might wonder if there is another realm out there.
Where do the three of you go next? Will there be more collaborations?
We are each working on our own novels now but very much hope we can find another topic to collaborate on!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Images: Photograph of Hilma af Klint (1895), Late Summer (1903) and Primordial Chaos, no. 16 (1906–7) by Hilma af Klint—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sofia Lundberg is an internationally bestselling author, journalist, and former magazine editor. Lundberg is the shining new star of Scandinavian fiction, translated into nearly forty languages. She lives in Stockholm with her son.
Alyson Richman is a USA Today and #1 international bestselling author. She is an accomplished painter, and her novels combine her deep loves of art, historical research, and travel. She lives on Long Island with her husband and two children.
M.J. Rose is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She grew up in New York City exploring the labyrinthine galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the dark tunnels and lush gardens of Central Park.
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