Black and white image of Hilma af Klint sitting in a chair in an art studio

How the rediscovery of Hilma af Klint’s work is rewriting the history of art

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27 October 2021

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Step inside the unseen world of Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, a pioneer of 19th century art who has finally claimed her place in the canon. Dionne Christian writes.

Had Hilma af Klint created only botanical drawings and landscape paintings – as was expected of women in her day – she might be a minor footnote in Swedish art history, as a female artist able to make a living partly because of Sweden’s (slightly) more liberal attitudes.

But af Klint, born in 1862 and an 1887 graduate from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, had an astonishingly different side to her life and work – one that has turned the art world on its head and made af Klint one of the most noted and in-demand artists, 77 years after her death.

In a rare treat for Aotearoa’s art lovers, Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings touches down at City Gallery Wellington in December. Wellington is only the second city in the Southern Hemisphere, after Sydney, to see why af Klint is now making waves.

The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood by Kilma af Klint

It’s partly because of the work itself; much of it large in scale, unprecedented at the time, and replete with radiant colour combinations, mysterious symbols and other-worldly shapes and forms. Seeing it up close, City Gallery director Elizabeth Caldwell said af Klint’s “exquisite paint handling and application of colour made the paint surfaces more beautiful than I expected and more than I could have hoped for”.

But the rediscovery of af Klint’s work is rewriting art history.

Men like Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian have the credit for introducing the Western world to abstract art, with its visual language of colour, shapes and forms, rather than representational figures and objects.

Kandinsky claimed in 1911 that he had produced the first abstract painting; af Klint had been at work since 1906, but in secret. Five years ahead of Kandinsky, it makes af Klint one of the pioneers of abstract art and equally deserving of a place in the art canon as her male contemporaries.

Linda Tyler, convenor of the Museums and Cultural Heritage programme at the University of Auckland, says the emergence of af Klint’s work has been a bombshell for the art world and is reconstructing the history of art.

So, why wasn’t af Klint better-known decades ago?

“She was a woman with all the restrictions around how women should behave – and what they should paint. It was bad enough that she hadn’t married or had children; she was already one step away from being burnt at the stake,” says Linda, slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Af Klint did try to exhibit some of her art during her life, mainly at spiritualist conventions where she felt the paintings would be best understood and appreciated. However, writings in the extensive notebooks she left behind – 124, with a total of 26,000 handwritten pages – show she was disappointed with the response.

Sue Cramer, curator of Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, says it left af Klint feeling as if she could not find a receptive audience.

Sue Cramer standing in front of one of Hilma af Klint's paintings
Sue, curator of The Secret Paintings exhibition, in front of The Ten Largest, No. 4, Youth. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE HILMA AF KLINT FOUNDATION

“For this reason, she felt that her works were in advance of humanity,” explains Sue. “They contained a message for humanity and they needed an audience, but the audience wasn’t ready yet to receive it.”

It’s a point also made by Elizabeth: “The secret paintings were not created for fame or fortune, but to speak across time, to educate audiences of the future. Her exploration of humanity’s place in the cosmos resonates particularly during a global pandemic and the challenging issues we are experiencing today. An underlying theme of af Klint’s beautiful paintings is a drive toward harmony and interconnection – ideas that are pertinent for our time.”

The secret paintings were not created for fame or fortune, but to speak across time, to educate audiences of the future.

Hilma af Klint's The Swan, No.1
A lot of af Klint’s work focuses on dualities, such as dark and light in The Swan, No. 1 from The SUW Series, 1914-15. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE HILMA AF KLINT FOUNDATION

In her will, af Klint insisted her work not be exhibited until at least 20 years after her death, which occured in 1944 after a traffic accident. While there are few things the art world loves more than the discovery of a groundbreaking but largely unknown artist, it becomes even more compelling when that artist has a backstory like af Klint’s.

As well as being an artist, she was a medium and mystic who practised spiritualism, experimented with the occult, joined the Theosophical Society and was interested in Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy and the older spiritual and cultural movement Rosicrucianism. All contain elements of esotericism, mysticism and a belief that we are part of an unseen cosmic whole.

Af Klint was attempting to paint the unseen world she believed existed alongside our observable one, at a time when science was making the previously invisible – things like electromagnetic radiation and subatomic particles – visible. She already had an interest in nature, so she was influenced as much by scientific discoveries as she was by her spiritualist practices.

Hilma af Klint's The Ten Largest, No.3 Youth
Hilma af Klint’s works, including The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, are some of the earliest examples of Western abstract art. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE HILMA AF KLINT FOUNDATION

But it was spiritualism that powered her as she worked in secret on her most ambitious paintings. Af Klint belonged to a group of women called The Five who met regularly and, after prayers, biblical discussions and meditation, would hold seances to try to commune with spirit guides.

Af Klint saw herself as receiving messages from these higher powers, which initially guided her artwork. In 1906, she started Paintings for the Temple, which she hoped would one day occupy the inner sanctum of a grand spiral temple. Visitors would ascend through the temple, seeing her work, which proposes a path to enlightenment through integrating spirit and matter.

By the time she finished in 1915, Paintings for the Temple comprised 193 individual works in 10 series (with some divided into further sub-series), and included The Ten Largest – oils and tempera on paper standing more than three metres high. They aimed to show the rich world existing alongside our visible one and explored dualities: light and dark, spirit and matter, male and female.

Hilma af Klint's The Ten Largest as part of Painting for the Temple
The oversized The Ten Largest were completed in 1907 as part of af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE HILMA AF KLINT FOUNDATION AND THE MODERNA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM

Formerly at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, Sue acknowledges it is unusual for a curator of contemporary art to put together a show of art by a 19th century artist.

“I’ve never before done an exhibition of an artist born in 1862, but I just loved the colour, the spirituality of her work and the contribution to the history of art. I knew it was very important work,” she says. “We had done some exhibitions of women artists like Louise Bourgeois and Georgia O’Keeffe, and we were thinking who the next important artist could be. I thought, ‘Well, why not Hilma?’

“It was very clear how relevant she was to the contemporary moment and how exciting she was to a contemporary audience… The paintings are kind of timeless, but they are very of our moment in many ways. I think that while some of the sources are very esoteric, they are not bound by esotericism. It can speak to a wider world, people who don’t necessarily subscribe to, let’s say, anthroposophical views.

“Her works are broader than that. It’s a stunning example of a body of work – from whatever time it’s made – and it’s an extraordinary achievement.”

The Secret Paintings includes more than 100 pieces, starting with af Klint’s early botanical watercolours, a selection of her notebooks, more than 30 abstract works from later in her life – and, remarkably, all of The Ten Largest.

“I think of them as one of the great wonders of the world, in a way, because they are such an early example of Western abstraction. Abstraction existed in other cultures and other forms, but this is within the Western tradition – and they are very, very unique,” says Sue. “They are absolutely original for their time.”

When af Klint died in 1944, penniless and unknown, she left her naval captain nephew, Erik, to care for her art. Erik was told by the owner of his late aunt’s home to come and collect it all because the building was to be burnt. Sue shudders at the thought that if Erik had not cared about his aunt or lacked time to move some 1300 paintings, it all may have been incinerated.

The Ten Largest, No. 1, Childhood by Hilma af Klint
The Ten Largest, No. 1, Childhood.

Initially, the paintings were stored in the homes of various family and friends. Erik’s son Johan is now the keeper of his great-aunt’s legacy, and says his father didn’t understand the paintings at all, but kept them safe, finally starting the process of examining each one and cataloguing them in the 1960s.

According to Johan, he offered the paintings to Sweden’s prestigious Moderna Museet in the early 1970s, but on hearing that af Klint was a spirit medium, they were turned down. While the art world had room for men who acknowledged the influence of spiritualism in their works, it still was not ready for a woman who did the same.

The Hilma af Klint Foundation was established, her work kept together and stored outside of Stockholm, and word slowly started to spread about the mysterious Swedish artist’s grand paintings.

In 1986, a handful were displayed at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.

“That was really a turning point when new ways of looking at the history of modernism started to emerge,” says Sue. “Her works were shown there and there was an enormous response.”

Af Klint’s time had come. Exhibitions in New York, London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Moderna Museet have followed. The 2018-2019 Guggenheim show in New York attracted 600,000 visitors – the highest attendance for any show in its history.

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