Life and Work of Hilma af Klint, Western Art's First Abstractionist

Hilma Af Klint Exhibition At Serpentine Gallery
General view at the Spring Exhibition Photocall; Hilma Af Klint Exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery on March 2, 2016 in London, England.

David M. Benett / Getty Images for Serpentine Galleries)]

Hilma af Klint was a Swedish painter and mystic whose works are said to be the first paintings of abstraction in Western art history. Driven by a connection to the spirit world, her output of large abstract works was not widely exhibited until decades after her death, as the artist feared their misinterpretation. As a result, the full extent of af Klint’s historical significance is still being explored today.

Early Life

Af Klint was born in 1862 outside Stockholm, Sweden, to a well-established family. She was the daughter of a naval officer and the fourth of five children. Her younger sister died in 1880 at the age of 10, an event which af Klint would carry with her for the rest of her life and which would cement her interest in the world of spirits.

Spiritualism

By the age of 17, af Klint was interested in the world beyond human perception, but it was not until she was in her mid-thirties that she began to attend regular meetings of the Edelweiss Society, an organization of spiritualists in Stockholm. That same year, she and four female friends founded De Fem (The Five), a group with whom af Klint met for contact with the “High Masters,” six spiritual guides who would eventually have an influence on af Klint’s artistic direction.

Af Klint’s interest in spiritualism was not unusual, as spiritualist sects and societies were flourishing in Europe and the United States at turn of the century. Loosely connected to Christianity, her meetings and séances with De Fem were organized around an altar and would often include readings of the New Testament and the singing of hymns, as well as discussion of Christian teachings.

Hilma Af Klint Exhibition At Serpentine Gallery
General view at the Spring Exhibition Photocall; Hilma Af Klint Exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery on March 2, 2016 in London, England.  David M. Benett / Getty Images for Serpentine Galleries

Though she was connected to many movements under the umbrella of spiritualism (including rosicrucianism and anthroposophy), af Klint’s spiritualism would be defined by her interest in theosophical teachings. Founded in the United States in the late 19th century, theosophy sought to reassert the unity that was destroyed when the universe was created and was drawn from Hindu and Buddhist teachings. This drive towards unity can be seen in many of af Klint's canvases.

Early twentieth century movements of spiritualism have been, perhaps contradictorily, linked to the history of science and advances in the observation and documentation of previously unknowable aspects of existence, among them the discovery of the X-ray in 1895 and radioactivity in 1896. Believing these discoveries to be evidence of a world unknown to the human eye, spiritualists embraced the world of the microscopic.

Af Klint's Group IX/SUW, No, 9. The Swan, 1914-1915.  Getty Images

The impetus behind af Klint’s work was often tied to spiritualism, beginning with mediumistic trances through which members of De Fem would create automatic drawings. A quick look through the notebooks which contain these trance-induced drawings reveals many of the abstract and figurative motifs that would make it into af Klint’s larger canvases.

Work

After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, af Klint began to sell work in the naturalist style. It was through the sale of these more traditional works that af Klint would support herself.

As member of De Fem, however, af Klint was moved by a higher power to create her abstract works, a radical departure from her classical training. In 1904, she wrote that she was called to create paintings by the High Masters, but it was not until 1906 that she began work on the Paintings for the Temple, a project which would span nine years and encompass 193 works. The Paintings for the Temple make up the bulk of the artist's output, in which she created paintings for an as-yet-unbuilt temple, whose ascending spiral would house the works.

Installation of the Ten Largest at the Serpentine Gallery, 2016.  Getty Images

Through images derived from the physical world, these paintings’ intention was to point toward that which lies beyond human experience, whether through timelines of evolution, or in spaces physically uninhabitable by human bodies, whether on the micro scale of cellular systems or on the macro scale of the universe.

Af Klint left behind numerous notebooks which contain the key to deciphering this symbol-heavy work, which uses shapes, color, and an invented language to communicate its meaning. (For example, for af Klint, the color yellow represented the male, the color blue represented the female, and the color green was a symbol of unity.) However, it is not necessary to understand af Klint’s made up language in order to see the reverence for the complexity of both the micro and macro worlds at which they hint. Af Klint’s work was not exclusively abstract, however, as she would often include animals or human forms within her compositions, including birds, shells, and flowers.

Significant work

The Ten Largest is a series of paintings which chronicle the lifespan of a human being, from birth until old age. Painted in 1907, their size, not to mention the content of their surfaces, offer insight into af Klint’s radical innovation. It is possible that she lay these works on the floor in order to paint them, an innovation in art not revisited until the 1940s, when abstract expressionist artists would take the same radical step.

HIlma af Klint's Group VI, No, 3. Evolution 1908.  Getty Images

Legacy

In 1908, af Klint met with the theosophist and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, who was skeptical of af Klint’s reliance on the spiritual world for inspiration, a piece of criticism which may have discouraged the artist from displaying her work publicly.

In the same year, af Klint’s mother suddenly went blind, and in order to care for her, the artist paused work on her grand project. She would return to it four years later and complete the project in 1915. Her mother died in 1920.

Hilma af Klint died in 1944 with barely a penny to her name, explicitly stating that her work should not be exhibited until 20 years after her death, suspecting that the world was not yet equipped to understand it. She bequeathed her estate to her nephew, Erik af Klint, who set up a foundation in her name in 1972 in order to preserve his aunt’s artistic legacy.

The 2018-2019 retrospective of her work, titled Paintings for the Future, at the Guggenheim Museum, was received with critical acclaim. It broke the museum's record for the highest attendance at an exhibition, drawing over 600,000 visitors, as well as the museum’s record for number of catalogues sold.

Sources

  • About Hilma af Klint. Hilmaafklint.se. https://www.hilmaafklint.se/about-hilma-af-klint/. Published 2019.
  • Bashkoff T. Hilma Af Klint: Paintings For The Future. New York: Guggenheim; 2018.
  • Bishara H. Hilma af Klint Breaks Records at the Guggenheim Museum. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/496326/hilma-af-klint-breaks-records-at-the-guggenheim-museum/. Published 2019.
  • Smith R. ‘Hilma Who?’ No More. Nytimes.com. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/11/arts/design/hilma-af-klint-review-guggenheim.html. Published 2018.