Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Modern Abstraction

She was a pioneer of modern abstraction but also a deeply spiritual human being who dared to take her own path in the traditional world of early 18th century Sweden. Meet Hilma af Klint an artist who let herself be guided by ’high masters’, who never stopped studying philosophy and who´s big break didn´t come until many years after her death – and on another continent.

Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece No. 1, Group X, 1915

Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece No. 1, Group X, 1915

Some people are truly ahead of their time. Renaissance man and famed artist Leonardo da Vinci was sketching designs for a helicopter around 1505, when he was painting Mona Lisa. And Apple’s legendary CEO Steve Jobs actually described the iPad in 1983 – decades before it was launched.

A more sublime rider against the laws of time is Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. Known as a pioneer of abstraction she dared to explore the new spirituality of the late 1800s. She translated the occult, the esoteric and pieces of the Theosophical movement into magnificent visuals. She acted as a medium and many of her pieces are automatic drawings, in where she let spirits paint through her. When Hilma af Klint died in 1944 she stipulated that her abstract art should not be shown publicly until 20 years later, because she didn´t think the world was ready.

The big breakthrough actually took a bit longer. It came in 1986 when her art was shown at the exhibition The Spiritual in Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Taking in Hilma af Klints art – as can be done at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until April 23 and later this year at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles – is a physical and spiritual experience, that I cannot imagine leaves anyone untouched. The large, often detailed canvases seem to glow, they speak to you in a number of languages and layers. The world – her world – is presented in bright orange, pale pink, midnight blue and a rainbow of other colors, often juxtaposed. The abstract shapes makes you think of an organic micro- (or macro-) cosmos, but present are also geometric shapes such as the equilateral triangle, the circle, the cross and the six-armed star. Letters and mystic signs or codes can also be found.

Hilma af Klint,  The Swan No. 17 ,  Group IX/SUW,  1915

Hilma af Klint, The Swan No. 17, Group IX/SUW, 1915

In touch with masters
The story of Hilma af Klint begins at Karlbergs Castle in Stockholm where she was born in 1862. Early in life she developed a connection with nature and her father, a famous naval commander, taught her the principles of mathematics. In essays she has been described as a silent youth but full of willpower. She started her art studies at Tekniska Skolan in Stockholm (later Konstfack), then she took lessons in portrait painting and at 1887 she graduated from the Royal Academy of the Fine Arts. She painted rather traditional, naturalistic portraits and landscapes.
But at the same time she embarked on an inwards journey. Af Klint attended seances where mediums came in contact with the dead. In 1896 she and four other women formed The Five, a group that made contact with ’high masters’ from other dimensions. The activity of The Five came to highly influence her work in the studio near Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm.
In the early 1900s she decided to focus fully on abstract imagery, independently paving a way that also Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich would take. According to Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where her work was shown a few years ago, she expressed her ambition to execute paintings that could convey the evolution, describe the eternal principles and laws and the immortal side of man in 1904.

The Temple
Thereafter she began working on The Temple, one of her central works. It consists in several series, in total 193 paintings, and af Klint says she was guided by a spiritual dimension while performing many of them. She called her work mediumistic, during seances instructions for the paintings were written down and sketches were made in a notebook that was kept as a secret for all but a few. She didn´t finish The Temple until 1915, when she did three large altarpieces. In the series is also The Ten Largest – huge paintings that illustrate the four ages of mankind: childhood, youth, maturity and old age.
Her next project was The Swan, a series of 24 paintings that abstractly show the struggle between a black and a white swan. It was aimed to point at the union between opposites such as male and female, black and white, light and dark. She also dictated her thoughts on spirituality and the soul, a text that – when typewritten – consisted in over 1200 pages. Later in life she turned her gaze back to nature. Beautiful, soft sketches seemingly depicting the secret life of plants are shown from her elder years.

Spread from The Legacy of Hilma af Klint: Nine Contemporary Responses, 2013 © Moderna Museet and Koenig Books

Spread from The Legacy of Hilma af Klint: Nine Contemporary Responses, 2013 © Moderna Museet and Koenig Books

To Switzerland
Hilma af Klint was a medium and she was also part of the Theosophical Movement and later the Anthroposophical Movement. Theosophy is a doctrine that incorporates various religions and spiritism as different expressions of the one truth, namely that divinity is inherent in every being. Anthroposophy is a life philosophy based on theosophy but with stronger Christian elements. Hilma af Klint and her lifetime companion Thomasine Andersson, a nurse who cared for af Klint´s blind mother before she died, started taking regular trips to Dornach in Switzerland in 1920. There they got to know Rudolf Steiner who founded the Anthroposophical movement. Hilma af Klint spent long periods in Dornach studying anthroposophy and attending his lectures. She became increasingly interested in colors and water paintings.

Complicated legacy
Due to, or maybe thanks to, Hilma af Klint’s late breakthrough little research has been done on her art and few academic essays have been published. To me that is refreshing. I feel like I can get to know this brave, visionary and extremely creative women on my own, in her time. Deep inside it feels like that’s what she wants. It´s amazing to know that she envisioned that her art would one day be shown in a round building where the visitors could walk upwards in a spiral - many years before the Guggenheim was built. 
But when I take in her magic world I also think of the somewhat sad irony of her legacy. In the early 1970:s Moderna Museet in Stockholm rejected a donation of the more than 1000 paintings and 26 000 drawings af Klint left behind, art that is now owned by the conflict-ridden Hilma af Klint Foundation. In 2013 the same museum enthusiastically showed her work, but still said it couldn´t take on the whole collection, which is in deep need of conservation and digitization.
– If someone dumped all the paintings here in the foyer and said ’now they are yours’ we would panic. We wouldn´t know what to do with them and we wouldn´t have money to take care of them, Daniel Birnbaum, then head of Moderna Museet, said to daily Svenska Dagbladet.

New museum?
But last year Moderna Museet and the Hilma af Klint foundation signed an agreement to collaborate on exhibitions and conservation issues. And now Hilma af Klint is again spellbinding audiences in the United States, documentaries are being made about her and a chamber opera is about to be premiered in Sweden. In her home country voices are also raised for a national Hilma af Klint-museum, like the Picasso-museum in Paris or the van Gogh-museum in Amsterdam. The foundation recently reached out to Stockholm Harbour and requested that the old customs house in central Stockholm should be used for a permanent Hilma af Klint-exhibition. Let´s hope that politicians, business men and spirits can come to an agreement on that.

Words by Tina Magnergård-Bjers, journalist at the Swedish news agency TT – dedicated yoga practitioner, art lover and cross-country skier based in Stockholm.

Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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