These paintings, on display in Los Angeles, revealed a life and an art that was different. Her spiritualism involvement had radicalised 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, organised 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 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, in the 17th Century, discovered that light is made up of particles. Goethe’s Theorem of Colours in the early 19th Century led many people to believe that colour 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 logical, modern and logical belief. Its global spread played a key role in the early Australian Modernism. The Theosophical Society in Sydney was so mainstream that it started a radio station in 1926: 2GB.

Read more: Clarice Beckett exhibition is a sensory appreciation of her magical moments in time

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 blindly, but I did have to imagine they were always by my side.

The first Paintings for Temple were finished five years before Kandinsky published his The Spirit in Art, which argued for abstract art.

She painted The Ten Largest in 1907.

Hilma Af Klint Group IV, No 3, The 10 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 the 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 aging 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 own value

It is worth looking at her life and position to understand why her art was not well known.

Hilma Af Klint came from a wealthy Swedish family of naval officers. 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, looping together in harmony, dissolving to geometry, until, in the end, the two swans lock arms. 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.

It is possible that she also stopped painting because of the care of her blind and frail mother. This may be the reason why she asked that her art be kept a secret for 20 years following her death.

A more pragmatic reason is also possible. Sweden, despite its neutrality, was close to Germany when the Nazis came to power. Radical abstract art with mystic overtones might have created problems.

Hilma af Klint, Group X, Altarpiece, no 1. 1915. Oil and metal leaf, 237.5 x 175 cm. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hak187. Photo: Stockholm’s Moderna Museet

Hilma af Klint died in 1944. Erik, her nephew, offered the art of Hilma af Klint to Sweden’s Moderna Museet in 1970 after seeing its richness. When the director learned that she was a mystic and a medium, he rejected her gift outright.

Linda Nochlin then published Why have there been no great women artists? an essay that ushered in a new age of scholarly reassessment of art by females.

Read more: Why weren’t there any great women artists? In gratitude to Linda Nochlin.

It was perhaps fortunate this gift was rejected. Almost all her art is now owned by the Hilma af Klint Foundation, created by her family. It will never be scattered by the art market nor be the subject of speculation by dealers.

It is a resource that both scholars and audiences can use to be amazed at the beauty of her forms and colors, and how she opens their eyes to new perspectives.