It wasn’t just the fact that this art is so beautiful, but also that it was painted in the first 20th Century.
Hilma af Klint, Botanical study, 1890s. Watercolour and ink, 35.8 cm x 22.4″. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hak1327. Photo: Stockholm’s Moderna Museet
Hilma Af Klint, a Swedish minor artist who was well-known in academia, is no longer around. She was born in 1862 and was one of the very first women to have graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm. She also exhibited her work at the Swedish General Art Association.
These paintings, on display in Los Angeles, revealed a life and a different art. Her spiritual involvement radicalized her work to the point that she could only be called one of the greatest abstract artists.
In 2013, her work was a sensation at the Venice Biennale. A full-scale retrospective, organized by Moderna Museet, was shown in Stockholm and Berlin, as well as Malaga, the same year. The Guggenheim Museum’s 2018 exhibition in New York broke all attendance records. Hilma Af Klint – The Secret Paintings is bringing her art to Australia for the first.
The same ideas that influenced her contemporaries Kandinsky, Mondrian Klee, and Malevich are responsible for the transformation of af Klint from a competent academic into an inspirational mystical abstractist.
It is more important to examine these ideas and how they impacted her art than to rewrite the history of art as if she were a great, unknown woman artist.
Changes that are both scientific and mystic
Many people were influenced by the scientific discoveries made in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century to question the nature of the universe.
Isaac Newton discovered in the 17th century that light is made up of particles. Goethe’s Theorem of Colours in the early 19th Century led many people to believe that color has spiritual and psychological power. In the early 20th Century, Max Planck proved that light particles have energy.
Hilma af Klint, Group 1, Primordial chaos, no 16. 1906-07. Oil on canvas 53 x 37cm. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hak016. Photo: Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden
Some began to believe that if the world was bigger than it appeared, there might be other astral lives. Some people thought they could be mediums and communicate with the spirit guides of these worlds.
A new religion appeared at the end of the 19th Century, theosophy. It incorporated ancient wisdom with modern science.
Theosophy is a system of beliefs that today may seem to be esoteric. However, it was a modern and logical one. Its global spread played a key role in early Australian Modernism. The Theosophical Society in Sydney was so mainstream that it started a radio station in 1926: 2GB.
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It is not surprising af Klint should become a follower. What is surprising is the power of the art unleashed as a consequence.
She joined four other colleagues to form a group called The Five in 1896. They investigated the spirit world using automatic drawings.
Hilma af Klint, Untitled, 1908. Dry pastels and graphite in pencil on paper. 52.5 x 62.26 cm. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hak1258. Photo: Stockholm’s Moderna Museet
In 1906, Amaliel, her spirit guide, “commissioned” her to create a new series of paintings, The Paintings for the Temple. Later, she described it as “the great task I accomplished in my lifetime.”
Af Klint, however, did not consider herself to be a mere conduit for spirits:
It was not that I had to obey them unthinkingly, but I did have to imagine they were always by my side.
The first Paintings for the Temple were finished five years before Kandinsky published his The Spirit in Art, which argued for the revolutionary idea of abstraction.
She painted The Ten Largest in 1907.
Hilma Af Klint Group IV, No 3, The ten largest youth. 1907. Tempera mounted on canvas 321 x 24 cm. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hak104. Photo: Stockholm’s Moderna Museet
The paintings are a beautiful study of life’s seasons. The elements of nature, geometry, and mysterious writing can be traced from the blues of childhood to the oranges, mauves, and yellows that characterize adulthood. Finally, the seeds of old age are marked by the thin and scumbled red paint.
The Ten Largest installation view at the Hilma af Klint: The Secret Painting Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (12 June – 19 September 2021). Photo: Jenni Carter (c) AGNSW
Forgetfulness has its value.
It is worth looking at her life and position to understand why her work developed in the way that it did and why she was so unknown for so many years.
Hilma Af Klint came from an aristocratic Swedish navy family. Sweden was neutral in the First World War, but Hilma af Klint was well aware of the horrors. In her Swan series, which began shortly after the war broke out, she pits a white swan and a black swan as the forms abstract, lurches in harmony, and dissolves into pure abstraction until, in the end, the two swans lock together. Each had elements from the other.
Hilma Klint Group IX/SUW The Swan, No. 1. 1914-15. Oil on canvas 150-150cm. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hak149. Photo: Stockholm’s Moderna Museet
Hilma Af Klimt presented the Temple Paintings to Rudolph Steiner in 1908. He did not understand her work and was not able to appreciate how she viewed herself in terms of working with spirits.