Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.
Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings
af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).
af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “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.”
In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.
After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.
The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and Theosophical doctrine.
In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.