Until recently very little was known about the artist Hilma af Klint, but there is growing scholarship that supports the fact that she was the world’s first modern abstract painter, predating Kandinsky, Malevich, or Mondrian by nearly a decade.
Born in Sweden in 1862, 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.
Af 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.
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 will be held in 2018 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.