Discover Hilma af Klint: Pioneering Mystical Painter and Perhaps the First Abstract Artist

In a post last year, Col­in Mar­shall wrote of the Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint, who “devel­oped abstract imagery,” notes Sweden’s Mod­er­na Museet, “sev­er­al years before” con­tem­po­raries like Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Piet Mon­dri­an, and Kaz­imir Male­vich. Much like Kandin­sky, who artic­u­lat­ed his the­o­ries in the trea­tise Con­cern­ing the Spir­i­tu­al in Art, af Klint “assumed that there was a spir­i­tu­al dimen­sion to life and aimed at visu­al­iz­ing con­text beyond what the eye can see.” Influ­enced by spir­i­tu­al­ism and theos­o­phy, she “sought to under­stand and com­mu­ni­cate the var­i­ous dimen­sions of human exis­tence.”

Born in 1862 and raised in the Swedish coun­try­side, af Klint began her stud­ies at the Acad­e­my of Fine Arts in Stock­holm after her fam­i­ly relo­cat­ed to the city. “After grad­u­at­ing and until 1908,” Mod­er­na Museet writes, “she had a stu­dio at Kungsträdgår­den in cen­tral Stock­holm.

She paint­ed and exhib­it­ed por­traits and land­scapes in a nat­u­ral­ist style.” But as a result of her expe­ri­ences in séances in the late 1870s, af Klint became inter­est­ed in “invis­i­ble phe­nom­e­na.”

In 1896, Hilma af Klint and four oth­er women formed the group “De Fem” [The Five]. They made con­tact with “high mas­ters” from anoth­er dimen­sion, and made metic­u­lous notes on their séances. This led to a def­i­nite change in Hilma af Klint’s art. She began prac­tis­ing auto­mat­ic writ­ing, which involves writ­ing with­out con­scious­ly guid­ing the move­ment of the pen on the paper. She devel­oped a form of auto­mat­ic draw­ing, pre­dat­ing the sur­re­al­ists by decades. Grad­u­al­ly, she eschewed her nat­u­ral­ist imagery, in an effort to free her­self from her aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing. She embarked on an inward jour­ney, into a world that is hid­den from most peo­ple.

Dur­ing one such séance, in 1904, af Klint report­ed that she had “received a ‘com­mis­sion,’” Kate Kell­away writes at The Guardian, “from an enti­ty named Amaliel who told her to paint on ‘an astral plane’ and rep­re­sent the ‘immor­tal aspects of man.’” From 1906 to 1915, she pro­duced 193 paint­ings, “an aston­ish­ing out­pour­ing,” which she called “Paint­ings for the Tem­ple.”

Hers is a strange sto­ry. Even in a time when many famous con­tem­po­raries, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, pro­fessed sim­i­lar beliefs and spir­i­tu­al prac­tices, not many claimed to be tak­ing dic­ta­tion direct­ly from spir­its in their work. The ques­tion af Klint rais­es for art his­to­ri­ans is whether she was “a quirky out­sider” or “Europe’s first abstract painter, cen­tral to the his­to­ry of abstract art.” Her mys­ti­cal eccen­tric­i­ties con­sti­tute a large part of the rea­son she has remained obscure for so long. Rather than seek fame and acclaim for her orig­i­nal­i­ty, af Klint stip­u­lat­ed when she died in 1944 at age 81 that “her work—1,200 paint­ings, 100 texts and 26,000 pages of notes—should not be shown until 20 years after her death.”

Still, it took a fur­ther 22 years before her work was seen in pub­lic, at a 1986 Los Ange­les show called “The Spir­i­tu­al in Art.” While her peers devel­oped large fol­low­ings in their life­times and took part in influ­en­tial move­ments, af Klint cul­ti­vat­ed a pri­vate, insu­lar world all her own, not unlike that of William Blake, who also remained most­ly obscure dur­ing his life, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly by choice. Her choice to hide her work came out of an ear­ly encounter, Dan­ger­ous Minds notes, with Rudolf Stein­er, “who was sim­i­lar­ly fol­low­ing a path towards cre­at­ing a syn­the­sis between the sci­en­tif­ic and the spir­i­tu­al” and who told her “these paint­ings must not be seen for fifty years as no one would under­stand them.”

Now that af Klint’s work has been exhib­it­ed in full, most recent­ly by the Mod­er­na Museet, cura­tors like Iris Müller-West­er­mann believe, as Kellawy notes, “that art-his­tor­i­cal wran­gles should not get in the way of work that needs to be seen.” Although af Klint may not have played an inte­gral his­tor­i­cal role in the devel­op­ment of abstract paint­ing, her expan­sive body of work will like­ly inspire artists, schol­ars, and eso­teric seek­ers for cen­turies to come.

Learn more about af Klint’s work at Mod­er­na Museet, the Hilma af Klint Foun­da­tion web­site, The Art Sto­ry and Dan­ger­ous Minds.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Who Paint­ed the First Abstract Paint­ing?: Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky? Hilma af Klint? Or Anoth­er Con­tender?

The Icon­ic Uri­nal & Work of Art, “Foun­tain,” Wasn’t Cre­at­ed by Mar­cel Duchamp But by the Pio­neer­ing Dada Artist Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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