The Obscure Paintings of Hilma af Klint Were Ahead of Her Time, Now it’s Time for the World to See Them

Installation view, “Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Jenni Carter. ©AGNSW. Images courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Hilma af Klint, Group X, Alterpiece, no 1, 1915, oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 179.5 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Installation view, “Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Jenni Carter. ©AGNSW. Images courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view, “Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Jenni Carter. ©AGNSW. Images courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The ten largest, no 7, adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 315 x 235 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The ten largest, no 3, youth, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 321 x 240 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Hilma af Klint, Group IX/UW, The dove, no 2, 1915, oil on canvas, 155.5 x 115.5 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
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Asia Society Hong Kong

An extensive survey of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) pays tribute to a trailblazing artist who, for way too long, has been intentionally kept out of the narrative of 20th century European art history.

 TEXT: Michael Young
IMAGES: Courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

In the late 1980s I visited London’s National Gallery with a friend. It was a regular haunt of ours. We ambled past the Rembrandts, ogled the Impressionists, checked in with Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp’s rondo of a A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle (c.1608-09) and stood transfixed before Edouard Vuillard’s huge La Terrasse at Vasouy (1901)—or at least I did—which became a diptych when the artist cut it in half in 1935. Finally, we ended in a room dedicated to the early Renaissance where we stood transfixed before Piero della Francesca’s sublimely beautiful Baptism of Christ (c.1430), with its fascinating mystical symbols and an invisible structural geometry that held everything together. I have always been a broad church when it comes to art.

My friend was a brilliant writer and a passingly good painter too who could string words together as though they were precious jewels. He was also something of a mystic. His most inspired piece of writing came after what he said was a recent conversation with his mother whom he bumped into at a London grocery store. I was shocked when he told me this because his mother had already passed away for many years. I have always been suspicious of mysticism and anything other-worldly but I suppressed the impulse to say anything critical in deference to how enthralled I was, standing in front of Baptism of Christ.

 

Installation view, “Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Jenni Carter. ©AGNSW. Images courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Hilma af Klint, Group X, Alterpiece, no 1, 1915, oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 179.5 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.

 

These rather oblique thoughts came to me out of nowhere when I visited Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) recently to see the some 100 paintings, sketches and notebooks by a virtually unknown Swedish artist Hilma af Klint who died in 1944 at the age of 82 after a contretemps with a tram in Stockholm, leaving behind her a mystery as challenging as the plot of Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code.

The exhibition—“Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings”—was a breath-taking visual epiphany shunting my ingrained scepticism into history’s dustbin. The paintings possessed an aesthetic language that seemed to defy theory and logic. With their lush joyous colours, swirling gestural lines, vibrant geometric patterns and esoteric symbols they are both arcane and totally unfamiliar. They are too incredibly beautiful. Critically however they are non-figurative and mostly abstract. Painted during the early years of the 20th century, af Klint’s journey of abstraction began in 1906, pre-dating by several years the claims of modernist painters Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, to having invented abstract art sometime around 1911. As a result, art scholars now, some 100 years later, have been re-writing the narrative of this 20th century art history.

If this dazzling presentation at the AGNSW was not enough, it was confounding to learn that much of the work—watercolours, oils, drawings and notebooks, botanical studies and Turner-esque watercolours that dissolved into pure abstraction—had lain hidden from view for two decades after af Klint’s death in 1944. She stipulated that the paintings, along with her journals and notebooks—1300 bits and pieces in all from her studio that had only been seen by a handful of people during her lifetime—should remain unseen for this length of time. The world, she presciently wrote in one of the notebooks, was not yet ready for her work.

Af Klint was childless and her nephew Erik was her beneficiary. He observed to the letter his aunt’s request and for decades kept everything from the studio locked away in wooden chests in a dusty loft in Stockholm. In 1966 he opened the chests and found this trove of paintings—both large and small, both oil and watercolour, and an additional 124 notebooks kept by af Klint comprising more than 26,000 pages dating to the period 1892–1944. That Erik immediately realised the work’s importance is attested to by the fact that in 1972 he established the non-profit Hilma af Klint Foundation in Sweden to manage the paintings and notebooks and to rescue his aunt’s practice from self-imposed obscurantism.

While exhibitions of af Klint’s work had begun circulating in Sweden and Europe early in the 20th century, and even in a group show at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986, it wasn’t until 1989, postmortem, when New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim launched the artist’s first survey show, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” The exhibition widened the scope of her audience dramatically. A New York Times art critic dismissed her work then as “somewhat mechanical abstract paintings”, however, the Guggenheim exhibition become the most visited in the museum’s 60-year history with more than 600,000 visitors. The catalogue ran to five reprints and sold 30,000 copies in total surpassing the previous record set by the catalogue of its 2009 Kandinsky retrospective—a curious juxtaposition given that Kandinsky and af Klint are now invariably mentioned in the same breath when art history scholars discuss abstraction in art.

In 1882 af Klint became one of the first women to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she studied drawing, portraiture and landscape painting graduating with Honours five years later, at which time she began building a successful career as a figurative artist. For some time, she lived a binary art life producing commissioned figurative paintings while increasingly being drawn to an esoteric visual language. From 1889 she came under the influence of Theosophy—a syncretic pseudo religious discipline that embraces the occult and mysticism as well as a basket full of other religions and had made steady ingress into Europe since its foundation in 1875. To say that Theosophy took the art world by storm is perhaps over stating it. Certainly, at the turn of the century it became popular among many artists in different parts of Europe who began painting without reference to the external world. Kandinsky, long acknowledged as the inventor of abstraction, wrote to his dealer in 1935 claiming that in 1911 he was the first to paint a truly abstract work—a trope that he had already anticipated in his 1910 essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art. He wrote of painting that “its emancipation from a direct dependency on nature is in its very first stages.” By then af Klint was painting fully formed abstract works where colouration and structure existed without reference to any external reality. Kandinsky was said to have participated in black magic and pagan rituals and Mondrian was also said to have been a Theosophist.

 

Installation view, “Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Jenni Carter. ©AGNSW. Images courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Installation view, “Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Jenni Carter. ©AGNSW. Images courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

According to the af Klint Foundation, the artist, always thirsty for knowledge, was a mystic from her teenage years. Séances were part of her life where she would confer with the undead and also receive messages from other-worldly deities. At these séances af Klint and her cabal of four female friends—they called themselves “The Five”—dallied in automatic writing and sketching, made-up words and embraced theosophy with its curious melange of influences. The séances put them in direct contact with “The Masters”, who were believed to preserve the world’s ancient spiritual knowledge and were often considered as incarnate beings.

From today’s vantage point it sounds rather certifiable but it happened at a time when society searched for intangible meaning in life and artists in particular were heading toward the idea of the spiritual in their work, that encapsulated the divine moment of creation and channelled otherworldly creative forces. As British playwright Tom Stoppard observed in his sparkling 1993 play Arcadia where he discusses science and art, the creative moment was one of “the gut instinct—the part of you that doesn’t reason.”

Af Klint lived at a time when the occult was becoming increasingly appealing in a world with an uncertain future as it transitioned from the glow of the fin de siècle to the challenges of 20th century modernism in both art and music, a world that was also soon to be overtaken by the unspeakable horrors of mechanised warfare. The idea of spirits controlling an artist’s brush, does not seem that far-fetched when one considers the world was awash with new scientific ideas; electricity, X-Rays and the telephone were all, superficially at least, the result of unseen forces.

 

Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The ten largest, no 7, adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 315 x 235 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The ten largest, no 3, youth, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 321 x 240 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Hilma af Klint, Group IX/UW, The dove, no 2, 1915, oil on canvas, 155.5 x 115.5 cm. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.

 

At the core of af Klint’s painting are a series of paintings known as The Paintings for the Temple, (1906–15), as well as the subset The Ten Largest, and which are viewed as the first examples of abstract art in the West. But af Klint didn’t produce the work in intellectual isolation. She was guided by several spiritual Masters all of whom had names and who inspired and communicated with her at the weekly séances. The chief among them was Amaliel who told her in 1904 that a temple should be built and that it should be filled with paintings representing the spiritual world. Two years later af Klint accepted the commission—the other four members of The Five having demurred. “This became the great commission, which I carried out in my life,” she wrote. The Paintings for the Temple resulted in 193 paintings, some of immense size, others just a few centimetres across, examples of which are on display at the AGNSW where The Ten Largest are beautifully hung in a soaring reverential cube of a room, evoking the atmosphere of an art temple; quiet, sophisticated and sizzling with spiritual ambience.

Today theosophy whiffs of new age mumbo jumbo and its popularity has declined. Were af Klint alive, she would probably not be someone you would employ to mind your children and one might easily dismiss her as a wacko and misfit. But her transcendental paintings suggest that she was without a doubt on to something that the art world had not previously encountered. The strength of the paintings lies in the way they convey through their glorious tonal synthesis a world that somehow exists beyond human intellect.

All great art possesses a spiritual dimension, but what that dimension might be is beyond me. There is something undoubtedly primordial and cosmic in af Klint’s work, something mystic that is both deeply moving and viscerally, that has come from a place that is beyond reason. Only once previously had I encountered such a revelatory experience and that was when standing in front of Piero della Francesco’s Baptism of Christ with my close friend who communed with the dead and who could produce art that was equally beyond comprehension, as are af Klint’s secret paintings.

 

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings
12 June–19 September 2021
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

 

 

 

 
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