Hilma af Klint, The Almost Forgotten Abstract “Painter From the Future”
“All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart, but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being… the knowledge of your spirit.” These words were reportedly uttered by a spiritual “High Master” from the beyond named Gregor during one of the meetings of De Fem (The Five), a group of women artists who were bound by their reverence for spiritism.
Among the women in this unorthodox group was Hilma af Klint: Swedish painter, dedicated follower of Theosophy, and one of the vanguards of the 20th-century abstract art movement.
All artists are visionaries in their own right, but there’s something strangely intriguing about works of art that find inspiration beyond the realm of tangible possibility. These works, it seems, leave more room for mystery than anything else — and perhaps that’s where much of their allure stems from.
For af Klint, the creative process is less about individualistic effort and more about intuitive guidance. Her view runs parallel to the philosophy of another forerunner of the genre, Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kadinsky (notable for being the “Father of Abstractionism”). Like af Klint, Kadinsky was inspired by Theosophy. In the book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he wrote:
“The true work of art is born from the ‘artist’: a mysterious, enigmatic, and mystical creation. It detaches itself from him, it acquires an autonomous life, becomes a personality, an independent subject, animated with a spiritual breath, the living subject of a real existence of being.”
The moniker for Kadinsky may be a little misleading, however. As a revolutionary abstract artist and theorist, he had contributions that were certainly requisite to the art movement, but his art and theories were preceded by af Klint’s work, which is generally regarded as the earlier (if not the earliest) contribution to the genre.
However, her art remained unknown — or, at the very least, unnoticed — for years, and she was unfortunately left behind her fellow abstract art pioneers. Part of this is because of af Klint herself, who, despite her achievements, felt that “the world was not ready for her work.”
Spiritualism and Art in af Klint’s Youth
Born in 1862 to a naval commander and a mathematician, af Klint was the fourth child in a Protestant family. She spent most of her childhood in the Karlberg Palace in the Solna municipality in Stockholm, Sweden. In the summer, she and her family would stay in their manor in Adelsö, a quiet island in the middle of Lake Mälaren.
It was at this early point in her youth that af Klint found herself fascinated and inspired by nature. She may have been known for her abstract spiritualist work, but she also painted a lot of realist subjects and landscapes, such as Eftersommar (meaning “Late Summer”).
Notably, af Klint was one of the first known women to have attended an art school. In 1880, she went to Tekniska Skolan or Technical School — now Konstfack (University of Arts, Crafts, and Designs) — for portrait painting classes under Kerstin Cardon.
These formative years would turn out to be vital to af Klint’s foundation as an artist as it was during this time she started taking an interest in religion and occultism. This was cultivated even further by the loss of her 10-year-old sister, Hermina. Af Klint started going to more séances and spiritual meetings.
Five years later, af Klint graduated from the Academy with honors and was awarded an art studio in Stockholm as her scholarship grant. Here, she was able to create and sell portraits and naturalist paintings, which helped her financially sustain herself.
Hilma af Klint’s Spiritually Driven Artistry
With her growing art career, af Klint also started to explore her spiritual beliefs and interests even more. She joined the European Federation of the Theosophical Society and the ecumenical association the Edelweiss Society for a brief time. Later on, af Klint would gather with four other women to form their own spiritualist group called “The Five.” From 1896 to 1907, they met regularly for prayer, meditation, and reflections on New Testament scriptures.
Most notably, the group would engage in rounds of séances where they reported consulting with spiritual guides they called De Höga (the “High Masters”). Af Klint also started experiencing “automatic drawing,” a curious activity in which she claims to be directly guided by an unknown force while painting.
“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force,” af Klint said. “I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict. Nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
By this time, af Klint’s artistic work would start taking a more experimental direction. While her initial art style leaned towards naturalist references, the art she’d made “through the spirits” began to show signs of abstract idiosyncrasies: arbitrary geometrical shapes and patterns, seemingly formless.
In 1906, af Klint embarked on what would be considered her most monumental project: a series of paintings called “Paintings for the Temple,” which was “commissioned” to her by one of the High Masters named Amaliel. The oeuvre consisted of 193 paintings which started with theosophical influences until af Klint started incorporating Christian iconography towards the project’s latter years. Even the name doesn’t hold any clear meaning: The “Temple” doesn’t refer to a concrete “temple” in the conventional sense. Instead, the project is an allusion to af Klint’s spiritual journey and visions.
Within this oeuvre, she made a subgroup of paintings she called “The Ten Largest” which represented the different stages of life. Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, said that the works were a middle point between the natural world and af Klint’s visions: “They combine elements of imagery that’s derived from organic forms, and botanicals, and creatures, and objects that one observes in the real world. So, there are representational elements to them. But they also take off into fantastical realms.”
Although she did say that she created directly through the spirits, in some cases, af Klint claimed that the activity wasn’t as mindless as it seems: “It was not the case that I was to blindly obey the High Lords of the Mysteries, but that I was to imagine that they were always standing by my side,” she’d written in her notebook.
Later on, af Klint presented her works to philosopher and anthroposophy leader Rudolf Steiner in the hope of taking his interest in them, but she was met with discouragement. Still, Steiner held a great influence on af Klint’s artistry as she became a member of the Anthroposophical Society.
By the latter years of her career, af Klint started veering away from pure spiritualist abstraction. She began to use watercolor as a medium and portrayed natural objects and concepts, going back to her roots and inspiration on flora and botany. But her idiosyncratic abstract style remained.
“It is quite different from the imagery that we’ve seen before this in many ways, particularly in the way that these works are created on this kind of wet-on-wet watercolor technique,” said Bashkoff. “But they are still connected to her earlier work in their ties to the natural world, and to the forms of flowers and light that tie back to the botanical studies that she did early in her life.”
A Legacy Lost and Resurrected
For decades, af Klint remained an artist unknown to the world partly because of her own prescriptions. Before her death in 1944, she entrusted her works to her nephew Erik and told him that they should not be shared for 20 years. He conscientiously listened to this request and tried to donate these to museums in the late 1960s, but was unfortunately rejected several times. Still, Erik would exert his efforts in preserving the artworks even if they were never exhibited to the public.
It took around seven decades for the world to recognize her creative genius and talent. In 2013, her oeuvre was exhibited in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm — back to af Klint’s very own home. These works, previously unappreciated and almost gone, started being shown in other art shows and museums in the world as well.
That same year, filmmaker Halina Dyrschka pursued a creative project about the life and legacy of the Swedish abstract pioneer through a documentary called Hilma af Klint: Beyond the Visible. Dyrschka said she was profoundly inspired by af Klint’s story after reading about her in the news. Later, Dyrschka witnessed the works herself when it came to Berlin as an exhibition half a year after their debut in Stockholm.
Dyrschka was in disbelief that such a remarkable talent remained unseen for such a long time. “…I thought: who is responsible that I’m living for such a long time on this planet and nobody has told me about it?” she said. With resolve, Dyrschka decided to tell her story: “I thought I have to make a film about this.”
The paintings were fascinating enough, but af Klint’s character and inspiration also exhibited an exceptional novelty. “[Here] was a woman who consequently followed her own path in life that led to a unique oeuvre,” Dyrschka said. “A strong character and despite all restrictions, Hilma af Klint explored the possibilities that go beyond the visible.”