As the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum hosts the first major solo exhibition of her work, Hilma af Klint, 20th century art heroine urges a rethink of the history of abstract art
« The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke. »
– Hilma af Klint
The art historical impact of Hilma af Klint’s abstract work has taken a long time to realise. But, as the saying goes, « all good things come to those who wait ». For af Klint, that waiting has been some 75 years. The exhibition Paintings for the Future opened at The Guggenheim in New York last October to rapturous acclaim, validating this radical Swedish artist as an originator of abstraction in the early 20th century.
For someone who, up until now has been relatively veiled from the mainstream discourse, her emergence encourages a reconsideration of how it began and contests the long-accepted accolade given to Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Kupka of the Fathers of modernist abstraction. If these were artists working out of the major European art centres of the time, freely exhibiting and sharing manifestos, af Klint kept her own work secret, possibly only exhibiting once in her lifetime. If the facts be known, the abstract work made by Hilma af Klint from as early as 1906 predates these others.
There have been other exhibitions in Europe and the US, notably Painting the Unseen at the UK’s Serpentine Galleries in 2016 and a group show at The Drawing Center in New York with Agnes Martin and Emma Kunz, but the Guggenheim survey is the first major solo exhibition on an international level. Curated by Tracey Bashkoff, Director of Collections and Senior Curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Curatorial Assistant David Horowitz, it focuses on her breakthrough work, primarily The Paintings for the Temple that af Klint made between 1906 and 1915.
An artist ahead of her time
Born in 1862, af Klint belonged to the first generation of women allowed to study art in Europe. Scandinavia followed England in their progressivity, Germany later. Nonetheless, it was a time when women were not welcomed into male-dominated art circles, less so considered capable of creating something new. What af Klint did was unexpected. She produced a revolutionary body of work and kept it entirely secret, aware that the time was not yet ripe for it to be exposed. According to Daniel Birnbaum, former Director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, knowing this « may help to understand who Hilma af Klint was, why she was not visible or why she did not want to be visible ».
Af Klint died in 1944, coincidentally the same year as Kandinsky and Mondrian, leaving a will which stated that her work should not be made public until 20 years after her death. It was a decision based on her conviction that the audience for her abstracted work did not yet exist, that it would take some time for people to accept and understand the enigmatic messages and ideas she expressed. In fact, it took until 1986 for her to emerge as part of a show curated by Maurice Tuchman at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Spiritual in Art, which surreptitiously revealed Hilma af Klint to the world she had been waiting for. According to Iris Müller-Westerman, Director of Moderna Museet Malmö, « Af Klint conquered a world that had not yet been shaped. You might say that over 100 years ago, she painted for the future. That future is now. »
From classical painting to spiritualist abstraction
Coming from a traditional background growing up in Sweden surrounded by nature, af Klint inherited a deep interest in botany and mathematics from her family. In the 1880s, she trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the capital learning classical painting, producing skilled, naturalistic portraits, landscapes and botanical illustrations for scientific journals. She worked as a professional ‘career’ artist out of a studio in Stockholm granted to her by the Academy, in a building which also housed a gallery showing Edvard Munch. « She was studying how the world looked, and attempting to understand what surrounded her in this world without correcting it or beautifying it on her own initiative. She was a very thorough observer » affirms Müller-Westermann.
These formative years coincided with a time of great discoveries. Marie Curie’s and Becquerel’s work on radioactivity, Hertz’s radio waves and Röntgen’s x-rays fuelled the notion that there was much more to be seen beneath the surface of the physical world. Scientific advances challenged established religious beliefs and encouraged a new awareness of the global plurality of religions. The Paintings for the Temple, one of af Klint’s most celebrated series, arose directly from those belief systems.
Af Klint was well-read and took ideas from what was happening around her, as were Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and other art contemporaries. Her early interest in communicating with the afterlife evolved into a means of accessing a transcendental realm and channeling its spirits on a higher and different level of consciousness. She belonged to esoteric circles, participating in the trend at the turn of the century for spiritualism. Theosophy, Anthroposophy and Rosicrucianism were all philosophies she embraced and her desire to explore the intangible world pushed her from the representational towards non-objective imagery. It marked a pivotal shift in artistic direction and would be the leading source for her groundbreaking lifework.
Together with four other women, af Klint belonged to a group called « Der Fem » or « The Five » who would hold regular seances. Tracey Bashkoff explains: « The Five believed that they communicated with and received messages from beings of higher consciousness by entering trance states or using a psychograph (a tool used to record psychic transmissions). » Practising automatic drawing, they produced various groups of collective works. Af Klint later acted as a medium and channeled messages received from these spirits from the higher realm. From one of these, she would accept a call, « the great commission » to produce a phenomenal body of work known as The Paintings for the Temple. In a poignant turn of events for The Guggenheim, either by coincidence or by fate, the artist envisaged these paintings in a multi-layered spiral rotunda where the viewer could move along an ascending path and experience one work after the other.
The Paintings for the Temple
The 193 paintings produced by af Klint between 1906 and 1915 are bold, diverse, compositions. Collectively they communicate the artist’s belief in a universal inter-connectivity between polarised worlds and dimensions, in how all things correspond; male and female, day and night, cosmic and micro. Ordered into groups and sub-groups like a scientific system, their artistic complexity is executed in a profoundly aware and analytical manner. Visual codes (in af Klint’s symbolic language « W » signified matter, « U » meant spirit), biomorphic and geometric forms, symbolic linework and diagrammatic motifs are incorporated into expansive and intimate scales with maximalist and reductivist approaches to composition and colour.
The series are titled according to themes – Primordial Chaos, The Seven-Pointed Star, Evolution, Tree of Knowledge or The Dove. Designed in playful, unusual colours for the time, Af Klint proposed blue for the female element and yellow for the male. Echoing Renaissance colour codes, they suggest a connectivity or wholeness of a higher realm resulting from the combination of two spectral opposites. Though her classical education undoubtedly supported her abstract creations, the overlying aesthetic remains free and largely non-objective.
« The Ten Largest » from 1907 are the most monumental paintings of all. Describing the stages of human life from childhood to youth, adulthood to old age, they immerse the viewer in af Klint’s unique artistic domain. In buttercup yellows, rose pinks, muted oranges and mauve, they brim with natural forms of fluid spirals, tendrils, spheres and geometric symmetries. Looking at these vibrant, imposing, cutting edge works the viewer sees that af Klint broke the rules on how artwork was created. (These large canvases often laid and painted on the floor recall the later gestural practice of Jackson Pollock).
The seriality in her work enables a process of abstraction. In the first of « The Swan » pictures the viewer observes the beak, the feet, the shape of one black and one white bird. As the sequence continues, the concrete object dissolves until only the common black and white, red and blue remain. The final set of The Paintings for the Temple, the inspiring « Altarpieces » described by af Klint as « the summary of the series so far » radiates thoughtfully-painted segments towards a higher place. Divided into bright warm and cool colours, they are beautifully resonant with today’s contemporary East-West spiritual philosophies.
What is evident across all of the pieces is af Klint’s prevailing desire to express her belief in a positive, alternative world. Following the completion of The Paintings for the Temple, she continued to push the boundaries of her new abstract vocabulary, as seen in The Parsifal or The Atom Series. Likewise in Series II, af Klint explores different world religious standpoints using black and white spheres of varying versions. Further experimention with form, theme and seriality resulted in some of her most incisive work.
Being in her time and the legacy of Hilma af Klint
The source and methods by which af Klint produced her paintings, whether perceived via higher spirits or through her own subjectivity are ultimately inconsequential. What she left behind is an exceptional body of work of great artistic endeavor and value. It is not simple, esoteric kitsch but complex, substantial, meaningful and frankly very beautiful. The vision and skill of this turn-of-the-century woman in producing something of that order is extraordinary. She transformed the unseen into something visible and gave it a reality despite being invisible herself. To mind comes the Greek concept of aletheia, the idea of unconcealedness enabling being to manifest itself. In af Klint’s case it is the spiritual being of her work which has made its way to an open presence.
In our modern world, defined by virtual reality, af Klint’s pursuit one hundred years ago of an unseen, yet very present world is altogether relevant. Is it perhaps therefore not entirely coincidental that now is the time when she emerges? Resolving to keep her work hidden during her lifetime, and her intuition that the work would find the right future comes from an inner confidence and unpretentious self-view which makes her impact all the more thrilling.
As art historians, curators and other artists engage in fresh debate on her role in modern abstract art, perhaps her emergence will prompt a willing consideration of other non-mainstream players who may be due credit for the part they have played. As her paintings radiate upwards from within the Guggenheim’s spiral temple, the work of this heroic female artist has naturally found its own moment, her wish fulfilled.The world receives you Hilma af Klint, your future is here.
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