At Large  October 17, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Who Was Hilma af Klint?

Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation

Hilma af Klint, the Eros Series, the WU Rose Series. 

Visionary Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was exploring abstraction five years before Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, and the other acknowledged fathers of Abstract Art. She also delved into the subconscious with automatic drawing and automatic writing long before the Surrealists. While her abstract art got very little recognition during her lifetime, Klint is now recognized for her masterful grasp of color and form. Her intriguing combination of mysticism and science has been making a posthumous splash in the art world. The Guggenheim Museum's 2019 exhibition,​​ Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future, drew over 600,000 visitors, making it the most-visited exhibition in the museum's 60-year history. 

Currently, a work by Klint is featured in the survey exhibition Judy Chicago: Herstory, which just opened at the New Museum. Included within that show is The City of Ladies, an installation featuring Chicago’s sculptures, drawings, and embroideries within the context of more than eighty women and genderqueer artists including Klint as well as Hildegard von Bingen, Claude Cahun, Artemisia Gentileschi, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo.

Courtesy of the New Museum

Hilma af Klint, Group IX/UW, The dove, no.2, 1915. Oil on canvas, 61 1/4 x 45 1/2 in (155.5 x 115.5 cm). © The Hilma af Klint Foundation

A classically trained painter who graduated with honors from the Royal Academy in Stockholm in 1887, Klint supported herself primarily as a landscape artist. Imbued by her family with a love for mathematics and botany, and with a deep interest in the natural world, Klint’s work was already grounded in science. Like many of her contemporaries, Klint was influenced by the exciting new discoveries such as x-rays, as well by the philosophical movements of Theosophy, spiritualism and Anthroposophy, and expressed her evolving world view through her art. 

Klint became interested in spiritualism as a teenager, after the death of her younger sister. In 1896, she formed a spiritualist group named The Five with four female friends—Anna Cassel, Sigrid Hedman, and sisters Mathilda Nilsson and Cornelia Cederberg. The Five sought to connect with a higher power, and met regularly for prayer, séances and meditation. They explored more intuitive creative expression, including abstract automatic drawings. In 1904, Klint felt commissioned by one of her spirit guides to begin her major series: Paintings for the Temple. From 1906 to 1915, Klint was intensely creative, producing 193 works, guided by what she called 'divine dictation.'

Klint created a visual language using geometric forms, organic shapes resembling leaves and blossoms, recurring motifs such as spirals, and metaphoric use of color, all meticulously explained in her journals. Her work is filled with the light and shapes of the natural world, using form, line and color to create powerful works of mysterious beauty that join scientific precision with the ineffable. 

While Klint was more private about her abstract art, she did have a few exhibitions, but felt the world wasn’t ready for her work. Klint’s will bequeathed her work to her nephew, with instructions that her art and journals be kept secret for twenty years before being shown. Klint’s body of work includes over 1,200 paintings, 100 texts, and 26,000 pages of notes and sketches. The 1986 Los Angeles exhibition The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890–1985 began to bring her work international recognition. Stockholm’s Moderna Museet hosted an exhibition of Klint’s work in 2013 that brought her greater attention and a deeper appreciation of her work continues to blossom with such exhibitions as the recently closed "Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life" at Tate Modern. Her powerful paintings continue to resonate strongly with modern viewers and artists. 

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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