The Life & Art of Hilma Af Klint: A Short Art History Lesson on the Pioneering Abstract Artist

Like many artists whose abstrac­tions cement­ed their lega­cy, Hilma af Klint was trained to paint por­traits, botan­i­cals, and land­scapes.

The nat­u­ral­ist works of her ear­ly adult­hood depict bour­geois, late-19th cen­tu­ry Swedish life, and, by asso­ci­a­tion, the sort of sub­ject mat­ter and approach that were deemed most fit­ting for a female artist, even in a soci­ety where women were allowed to work along­side men.

But some­thing else was afoot with Hilma, as artist and edu­ca­tor Paul Priest­ley points out in the above episode from his Art His­to­ry School series.

Her 10-year-old sister’s death from the flu may have caused her to lean into an exist­ing inter­est in spir­i­tu­al­ism, but as Iris Müller-West­er­mann, direc­tor of Mod­er­na Museet Malmö told The Guardian’s Kate Kell­away, the “math­e­mat­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, musi­cal, curi­ous” teen was like­ly moti­vat­ed by her own thirst for knowl­edge as by this fam­i­ly tragedy:

 You have to under­stand this was the age when nat­ur­al sci­ences went beyond the vis­i­ble: Hein­rich Hertz dis­cov­ered elec­tro­mag­net­ic waves [1886], Wil­helm Rönt­gen invent­ed the x‑ray [1895]…Hilma is like Leonar­do – she want­ed to under­stand who we are as human beings in the cos­mos.

Her inter­est in the occult did not make her an out­sider. Spir­i­tu­al­ism was con­sid­ered a respectable intel­lec­tu­al pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. Abstract painters Vasi­ly Kandin­skyPiet Mon­dri­anKasimir Male­vich and Fran­tisek Kup­ka were also using their art to try and get at that which the eye could not see.

All but Hilma were hailed as pio­neers.

The New York Times review of Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um of Art’s 1986 exhib­it The Spir­i­tu­al in Art: Abstract Paint­ing 1890–1985, men­tions some of their spir­i­tu­al bona fides:

They were gen­er­at­ed by such ven­tures into mys­ti­cism as Theos­o­phy, Anthro­pos­o­phy, Rosi­cru­cian­ism, East­ern phi­los­o­phy, and var­i­ous East­ern and West­ern reli­gions. Spir­i­tu­al ideas were not periph­er­al to these artists’ lives, not some­thing that hap­pened to pop into their minds as they stood by their can­vas. Kup­ka par­tic­i­pat­ed in seances and was a prac­tic­ing medi­um. Kandin­sky attend­ed pri­vate fetes involved with mag­ic, black mass­es and pagan rit­u­als. Mon­dri­an was a mem­ber of the Dutch Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety and lived briefly in the quar­ters of the French Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety in Paris. He said once that he ”got every­thing from the Secret Doc­trine” of Theos­o­phy, which was an attempt by its founder Hele­na Petro­v­na Blavatsky to do noth­ing less than read, digest and syn­the­size all reli­gions. It has been known for some time how much of Mon­dri­an’s sym­bol­ism — includ­ing the ubiq­ui­tous ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal lines — and how much of his utopi­anism, was shaped by Theo­soph­i­cal doc­trine.

Review­er Michael Bren­son devotes one sen­tence to Hilma, “a pre­vi­ous­ly unknown Swedish artist whose some­what mechan­i­cal abstract paint­ings and draw­ings of organ­ic, geo­met­ri­cal forms were marked by Theos­o­phy and Anthro­pos­o­phy.”

Thir­ty-five years lat­er, she’s receiv­ing much more cred­it. As Priest­ley says in his video biog­ra­phy, Hilma, and not Kandin­sky, is now hailed as the first painter to exper­i­ment with abstrac­tion.

Would Hilma have wel­comed such a dis­tinc­tion?

She main­tained that she was but a receiv­ing instru­ment for Amaliel, a “high mas­ter” from anoth­er dimen­sion, who made con­tact dur­ing the séances she par­tic­i­pat­ed in reg­u­lar­ly with four friends who met week­ly to prac­tice auto­mat­ic draw­ing and writ­ing.

Amaliel charged her with cre­at­ing the art­work for the inte­ri­or of a tem­ple that was part of the high mas­ters’ vision. The Guggenheim’s class­room mate­ri­als for The Paint­ings for the Tem­ple note that her friends warned Hilma against accept­ing this oth­er­world­ly com­mis­sion, “that the inten­si­ty of this kind of spir­i­tu­al engage­ment could dri­ve her into mad­ness.”

But Hilma threw her­self into the assign­ment, pro­duc­ing 111 paint­ings dur­ing a one-and-a-half year peri­od, claim­ing:

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 brush­stroke.

For what­ev­er rea­son, the paint­ings proved too much for Rudolph Stein­er, the founder of the Anthro­po­soph­i­cal Soci­ety, whom she had invit­ed to view them, pay­ing his trav­el expens­es in hope that he would pro­vide a detailed analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion of the images. Instead, he coun­seled her that no one would under­stand them, and that the only course of action would be to keep the paint­ings out of sight and out of mind for fifty years. To do oth­er­wise might endan­ger her health.

A dis­ap­point­ing response that ulti­mate­ly led to the paint­ings being socked away for an even longer peri­od.

Good news for Kandin­sky… and pos­si­bly for Stein­er.

At any rate, the com­pe­ti­tion was coerced into elim­i­nat­ing her­self, inad­ver­tent­ly plant­i­ng the seeds for some major, if delayed art world excite­ment. Hilma, who died more than forty years before the L.A. Coun­ty Muse­um show, was not able to bask in the atten­tion on any earth­ly plane.

For those curi­ous in a take that is not entire­ly root­ed in the art world, Light­forms Art Cen­ter in Hud­son, New York host­ed a recent Hilma Af Klint exhib­it. Their strong ties to the Anthro­po­soph­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty make for some inter­est­ing exhib­it com­men­tary.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Com­plete Works of Hilma af Klint Are Get­ting Pub­lished for the First Time in a Beau­ti­ful, Sev­en-Vol­ume Col­lec­tion

New Hilma af Klint Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Life & Art of the Trail­blaz­ing Abstract Artist

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

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Felicity Ostermann says:

    There’s a tremen­dous amount of pro­mo­tion of this artist at the moment. I don’t think any­one heard about her a year ago. There’s an upcom­ing large exhi­bi­tion of her works here in Syd­ney. How­ev­er, I myself don’t think that this atten­tion is deserved at all, her works are very pedes­tri­an and I wasn’t sur­prised at all when I read that she’d been involved with the theosophists, a ridicu­lous bunch of “spir­i­tu­al” seek­ers.

  • Rob says:

    No one heard of her in 2022? lol Back in 2019 the Solomon R. Guggen­heim Museum’s exhi­bi­tion “Hilma Af Klint: Paint­ings for the Future” offi­cial­ly become the most-vis­it­ed exhi­bi­tion in the museum’s 60-year his­to­ry.

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