Museum  October 17, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Modern Art’s Lost Matriarch: Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim

David Heald

Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019

Moderna Museet

Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint painted abstract canvases before there was abstraction. Though Vasily Kandinsky is credited with painting one of the first recognized purely abstract works, af Klint’s large works, comprised of twisting shapes and large swaths of color, predate his and other contemporaries' abstract works by years. A new survey at the Guggenheim, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, asserts the artists' rightful place as a true artistic innovator and visionary. 

Born in 1862 in Sweden, af Klint showed an early for talent for art and trained at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a rare privilege for a woman at the time. Inspired by a pastoral childhood, Af Klint had a successful professional career in botanical drawings, landscape and portrait painting, which helped to sustain her financially.

In her private life, af Klint was passionately interested in the spiritualism of the day, including the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and the anthroposophical writings of Rudolf Steiner. In her artistic circles, af Klint formed a group of female artists who shared this interest. Calling themselves “The Five,” af Klint and her friends sought to access the spiritual realm through seances and other rituals. Af Klint used this spiritual practice and the encounters she had through it to guide her creative practice. Using autonomous drawing and painting techniques, af Klint developed a visual language to express the messages the spirits communicated to her. Beginning in 1906, she created many series of drawings and large-scale paintings, often diagrams explaining life's great mysteries and the soul. Though The Five knew of her great artistic endeavor, af Klint knew this body of work was ahead of its time, keeping this passion project largely hidden in her lifetime.

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 5 (Kunskapens träd, nr 5), 1915
Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 5 (Kunskapens träd, nr 5), 1915, from The W Series (Serie W). Watercolor, gouache, graphite and metallic paint on paper. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

Hilma af Klint, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece(Grupp X, nr 1, Altarbild), 1915
Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Hilma af Klint, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece(Grupp X, nr 1, Altarbild), 1915 from Altarpieces (Altarbilder). Oil and metal leaf on canvas. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 7., Adulthood, Group IV, 1907
Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 7., Adulthood, Group IV, 1907. Tempera on paper mounted on canvas. Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk.

Hilma af Klint, Group I, Primordial Chaos, No. 16 (Grupp 1, Urkaos, nr 16), 1906-1907
Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Hilma af Klint, Group I, Primordial Chaos, No. 16 (Grupp 1, Urkaos, nr 16), 1906-1907, from The WU/Rose Series (Serie WU/Rosen). Oil on canvas. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

Hilma af Klint, No. 2a, The Current Standpoint of the Mahatmas (Nr 2a, Mahatmernas nuvarande ståndpunkt), 1920
The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm

Hilma af Klint, No. 2a, The Current Standpoint of the Mahatmas (Nr 2a, Mahatmernas nuvarande ståndpunkt), 1920, from Series II (Serie II). Oil on canvas.

Upon her death in 1944, af Klint willed to her nephew nearly 1200 works, stipulating that they not be displayed until 20 years after her death. Locked in a crate for those two decades, it took another 20 years after their rediscovery for this massive body of work to receive much attention from art historians. Paintings for the Future is the first major solo exhibition in the United States devoted to the artist, one that should rightfully place her among the greats in the art historical canon.

David Heald

Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through April 23, 2019.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra is managing editor for Art & Object.