Until recently very little was known about the artist Hilma af Klint, but there is growing scholarship that considers her to be one of the world’s first modern abstract painters, predating Wassily Kandinsky, Kazmir Malevich, or Piet Mondrian by nearly a decade.
For her abstract art, Klint developed theories of color, line and shape, composing them into elaborate, large cosmic diagrams. Some of her radiant paintings are 10 feet tall and are painted with pure pigments mixed with egg yolk. Egg tempera gives her paintings a smooth finish, that captures light within a thin layer of vivid color. Metallic leaf was added to give her paintings a luminous shine.
Born in Sweden into an aristocratic family of naval officers in 1862, she chose not to marry. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and became an accomplished landscape and portrait artist. This was her public art and the way in which she earned her living; but her life’s work remained a separate practice.
There was a great fascination for invisible phenomena at this time. This can be seen in relation to scientific discoveries, such as x- rays that could reveal internal human organs and electromagnetic waves that led to the development of radio and telephony.
Klint was involved in the Occult and was influenced by the works of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besent. Klint’s understanding of occult physics, chemistry, and mathematics was unusual and ahead of her time.
Klint and four other women formed a seance group named “De Fem” [The Five] and eventually made contact with “the other side.” Klint began channeling their messages into abstract drawings thirty years before the Surrealists created their works.
Klint would make drawings during seances when she was psychically untethered. Working in her studio, she often attained a transcendent state, understood as the first-person expression of her spirit. She writes, “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.”
In 1906, Klint was commissioned by a spirit named Amaliel to create art for a Temple that would be built on Earth in the future. The purpose of the commission was to, “return symbolic knowledge back to humanity.” The commissioned work was to represent the path towards the reconciliation of spirituality with the material world. The paintings would contain the seeds of ancient knowledge lost to the people of earth. They were Spiritual Capital, intended for the future when humanity had evolved past its baser instincts.
Klint’s multifaceted imagery strove to give insights into the different dimensions of existence, where microcosm and macrocosm reflected one another. Her occult diaries contained symbols of crosses, mystical vowels and initials, symbols from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and references to the astral and metaphysical planes.
It is clear that Klint was prolific in her secretive world, but it is hard to imagine how she managed to keep all these vast works hidden from view. For a woman artist to create something so new was considered subversive. These early forays into modern abstraction were dismissed by her female colleagues as inappropriate. Klint didn’t dare show her work to the men at the Academy especially since they were trying to expel the women artists.
Klint lived to be 81. She left more than 1,000 paintings, watercolors and sketches. Although she exhibited her early representational works, she refused to show her abstract paintings during her lifetime. In her will, she stipulated that these groundbreaking works must not be shown publicly until at least 20 years after her death. She was convinced that only then would the world be ready to understand their significance. Some thought that she was concerned with the rise of Nazi Germany and that her works would be destroyed.
Although her abstract paintings were shown in a 1928 London exhibition, she sold no abstract work during her lifetime. In 1986, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gave a sprawling exhibition “The Spiritual in Art” and showed her abstract paintings along with the abstract work of contemporary European male artists.
It was not until 2013 that the first major exhibition of her work was shown at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which curated more than 1000 paintings and 125 notebooks. These works were unpacked from trunks – some of which had never been opened – which included her thoughts, mediumship experiences, and the notes about her paintings.
Her first retrospective was a six-month show held at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2018. Klint stated in her will that none of her paintings should be sold after her death.