A Short Video Introduction to Hilma af Klint, the Mystical Female Painter Who Helped Invent Abstract Art

It can be both a bless­ing and curse for an artist to toil at the behest of an influ­en­tial patron. Finan­cial sup­port and pow­er­ful con­nec­tions are among the obvi­ous perks. Being ham­strung by some­one else’s ego and time­frame are some of the less wel­come real­i­ties on the flip side.

Hilma af Klint, the sub­ject of a high pro­file exhi­bi­tion at the Guggen­heim, does not fit the usu­al artist-patron mold. She made her paint­ings to suit a spir­it named Amaliel, with whom she con­nect­ed in a seance. Amaliel tapped her to con­vey a very impor­tant, as yet inde­ci­pher­able mes­sage to humankind.

Although af Klint was an accom­plished botan­i­cal and land­scape painter who trained at the Roy­al Acad­e­my in Stock­holm, “Paint­ings for the Tem­ple,” 193 works pro­duced between 1906 and 1915 upon order of her spir­it guide, are bright­ly col­ored abstrac­tions.

As the Guggenheim’s Senior Cura­tor and Direc­tor of Col­lec­tions, Tracey Bashkoff, points out above, af Klint’s work was trad­ing in sym­bol­ic, non-nat­u­ral­is­tic forms ten years before abstrac­tions began show­ing up in the work of the men we con­sid­er pio­neers—Vasi­ly Kandin­sky, Piet Mon­dri­an, and Paul Klee. Yet, she was nowhere to be found in MoMA’s 2012 block­buster show, Invent­ing Abstrac­tion: 1910–1925. Cura­tor Leah Dick­er­man implied that the snub was af Klint’s own fault for con­sid­er­ing her work to be part of a spir­i­tu­al prac­tice, rather than a pure­ly artis­tic one.

In his 1920 essay, Cre­ative Con­fes­sion, Klee wrote, “art does not repro­duce the vis­i­ble; rather, it makes vis­i­ble.”

It was a sen­ti­ment Klint shared, but the spir­i­tu­al mes­sage encod­ed in her work was intend­ed for a future audi­ence. She instruct­ed her nephew that her work was to be kept under wraps until twen­ty years after her death. (She died in 1944, the same year as Kandin­sky and Mon­dri­an, but her work was not pub­licly shown until 1986, when the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um of Art orga­nized an exhi­bi­tion titled The Spir­i­tu­al in Art.)

Per­haps af Klint did not fore­see how dra­mat­i­cal­ly the respectabil­i­ty of spir­i­tu­al­ism and seances—a pop­u­lar pur­suit of her time, and one shared by Mon­dri­an and Kandinsky—would decline.

Her ded­i­ca­tion to car­ry­ing out her spir­it guide’s mis­sion may remind some mod­ern view­ers of Hen­ry Darg­er, the Chica­go jan­i­tor who cre­at­ed hun­dreds of art­works and thou­sands of pages of text doc­u­ment­ing the Glan­de­co-Angelin­ian War Storm, a strange and gory series of events tak­ing place in an alter­nate real­i­ty that was very real to him.

Thus far no one has ful­ly divined the spir­it’s mes­sage af Klint devot­ed so much of her life to pre­serv­ing.

As crit­ic Rober­ta Smith notes in her New York Times review of the Guggen­heim show, af Klint, a mem­ber of the Swedish Lodge of the Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety, was well versed in occult spir­i­tu­al­ism, Rosi­cru­cian­ism, Bud­dhism, Dar­win­ism, and the sci­ence of sub­atom­ic par­ti­cles.

Hints of these inter­ests are thread­ed through­out her work.

Col­or also helps to unlock the nar­ra­tive. She used blue and lilac to rep­re­sent female ener­gy, rose and yel­low for male, and green for the uni­ty of the two. The Guardian’s Kate Kell­away reports that the artist may have been influ­enced by Goethe’s 1810 The­o­ry of Colours.

Mov­ing on to geom­e­try, over­lap­ping discs also stand for uni­ty. U‑shapes ref­er­ence the spir­i­tu­al world and spi­rals denote evo­lu­tion.

Af Klint’s spi­ral obses­sion was not con­fined to the can­vas. Rober­ta Smith reveals that af Klint envi­sioned a spi­ral-shaped build­ing for the exhi­bi­tion of The Paint­ings for the Tem­ple. Vis­i­tors would ascend a spi­ral stair­case toward the heav­ens, the exact con­fig­u­ra­tion described by archi­tect Frank Lloyd Wright’s inte­ri­or ramps at the Guggen­heim.

Per­haps we are get­ting clos­er to under­stand­ing.

For fur­ther study, check out the Guggenheim’s Teacher’s Guide to Hilma af Klint: Paint­ings for the Future. See the exhi­bi­tion in per­son through mid-April.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Syncs His Abstract Art to Mussorgsky’s Music in a His­toric Bauhaus The­atre Pro­duc­tion (1928)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through Decem­ber 20th in the 10th anniver­sary pro­duc­tion of Greg Kotis’ apoc­a­lyp­tic hol­i­day tale, The Truth About San­ta, and the book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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