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Artists Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint Photo

Hilma af Klint

Swedish Painter

Movements and Styles: Expressionism, Symbolism, Modernism and Modern Art, Abstract Art

Born: October 26, 1862 - Solna, Sweden

Died: October 21, 1944 - Sjursholm, Sweden

Hilma af Klint Timeline

Quotes

"Life, is a farce if a person does not serve truth."
Hilma af Klint
"The atom has at once limits and the capacity to develop. When the atom expands on the ether plane, the physical part of the earthly atom begins to glow"
Hilma af Klint
"You have mystery service ahead, and will soon enough realize what is expected of you"
Hilma af Klint

"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 brush stroke."

Hilma af Klint Signature

Synopsis

Paradoxically delicate and powerful, the art of Hilma af Klint quietly and privately delivers a loud and essential message. Creating abstract canvases five years prior to the first by Wassily Kandinsky, and experimenting with writing and drawing guided by the unconscious decades before the Surrealists, the woman was a pioneer. Described as a mystic and a medium, af Klint conducted séances and communicated with spirits, even receiving a message from higher forces to create her most notable, devotional body of work, Paintings for the Temple. Yet, af Klint's sensitivity surrounding the ethereal was married to an analytical and scientific way of navigating the world. She was an eager botanist, well read in natural sciences and in world religions. With unsurpassed wisdom and in anticipation of human foolishness, not only did af Klint state that her work was not to be shown for 20 years following her death, but she also stipulated that no work could be sold separately, ensuring that her artworks could not become misunderstood commodities.

Key Ideas

In stark contrast to other pioneers of 20th century abstraction, af Klint worked away from the art world, without publishing manifestoes or participating in exhibitions. Despite her relative isolation she arrived at similar conclusions therefore questioning the need for audience and outward influences in the development of an artistic style. It is a great achievement to become a 'big name' having followed an inward path.
Af Klint's combination of geometry, figuration, symbolism, language, scientific research, and religion not only establishes her as a forerunner in abstract art, but also exposes her work as significant in the broadest of artistic terms. Her route to abstraction drew not only from an interest in mathematics but also from her studies of organic growth, including shells and flowers, all culminating to portray life through a spiritual lens.
The title for the artist's most important body of work, Paintings for the Temple is significant. It suggests that the canvases require a specific architectural 'home' and that they are designed to help viewers transcend beyond mortal and earthy realms. Af Klint does not make reference to any particular religion, (hence she does not use the word church, synagogue, or mosque) but instead aspires to build a 'temple', a universal place of worship dedicated to seeking balance through the union of opposites.
As a researcher, she worked in series, and as a linguist, she had her own language. This is perhaps true of many artists, but af Klint made this obvious, and therefore de-mystifed the process and role of 'being an artist' and in turn making the language of art more accessible. She explains in detail what her individual symbols mean in notebooks that accompany her paintings.
Aside from the Primordial Chaos series, af Klint's paintings are typically very large. This is unusual for a female artist and recalls the heroism and masculinity of the later Abstract Expressionists. Grand scale better conveys the vast and epic powers of nature and the tone of connectivity found in the endless pattern dots by aboriginal artists.
The delay in this artist's emergence raises questions surrounding the authority of 'art history'. The audience is caught wondering at the suggestion that certain artists interested in self-promotion and audience response are likely to be woven into a trajectory more quickly than those who, like af Klint, remain private, have no need for public acknowledgement, and yet are hugely important aspects of that same art history.

Most Important Art

Hilma af Klint Famous Art

Primodial Chaos Nº7 (1906-7)

Chaos No.7 is one of 26 works that make up the first series of the larger Paintings for the Temple cycle, entitled Primordial Chaos. This primary sequence appropriately investigates origin and the primordial essence of the universe in all of its manifestations. Here for example we are confronted with a circular object that could at once be flying or floating. We could be witnessing a space ship from another galaxy, but equally an emerging moth or soaring kite. Indeed, the artist's drive towards union is further emphasized by the fact that this series is also referred to as the 'WU' series, where W represents man and matter, and U stands for woman and the spiritual. Following this line of interpretation, Af Klint developed her own language whereby the color blue represented the female and yellow, the male. When the two colors combine they create a harmonious green, implying that marriage of polarity is spiritually important.

This work and others in the series recall images of fertilization, snapshots of the moment of creation when the sperm meets the egg. Af Klint records in one of her notebooks that both the snail and the spiral represent for her development or evolution. An earlier work in the same series, Chaos Nº2 portrays a series of constellations and stars immersed in a vast atmosphere that grows from day to night. For the art critic Mark Hudson the artist's use of symbolism makes the work "feel closer in spirit to much later Surrealism than to abstract art per se". A similar approach is defined by art critic Jonas Magnusson when he claims that "Af Klint's abstraction does not abandon reality but instead emphasizes it, releasing it "in the form of messages or transmissions on new frequencies, data that is visualized through different signs, words, symbols, forms, colors, diagrams".
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Hilma af Klint Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Hilma af Klint was born in 1862, in Solna, Sweden, as the fourth of five children of a Protestant couple, Mathilda af Klint and Victor af Klint who was an admiral and a mathematician. Most of her childhood was spent in Karlberg castle, the naval academy where her father was based. During the summer, the family would move to Hanmora, in Adelso, an island in Lake Malaren, where Hilma's fascination with nature and organic life began.

Little else is known about af Klint's childhood and her relationships with family and friends. It is known that she was close to her mother and lived with her not only in childhood but also after her father died in 1898, until her mother's own death in 1920. It seems that she was devoted to her work (both her art and her studies) and to her immediate family. One may speculate that there was no time for romance or too much excitement when following a life of devotion as serious as that of af Klint's. However, this is in artist who kept 1,000 paintings secret for a very long time so one cannot help but wonder what else the world does not know about af Klint; her mystery has become her allure.

Education and Early training

Hilma at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm, 1885
Hilma at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm, 1885

Hilma first attended the Technical School, which is now known as Konstfack, studying classical portraiture under the supervision of Kerstin Cardon. During this time, the artist already had strong leanings towards matters of the spiritual and the occult. These interests grew rapidly following the death of her ten year old sister, Hermina when af Klint was just eighteen years old. It was at this time that she first began attending séances, mystical group meetings that aimed to create a dialogue with the spirit world. At the age of twenty, in 1882, she went to study at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. She remained at the Academy for a subsequent 5 years, continuing her classical art training. After graduating with honors, she was awarded a scholarship in the form of an art studio in Stockholm's artist quarter, where her landscapes and portraits quickly became the source of her financial independence and stability. Luckily, the Scandinavian education system already admitted both men and women to their Academies (unlike France and Germany) and it was not uncommon for women to make a living from their art. It was, of course, more unusual for women to become visionaries and to surpass the talents of their male contemporaries.

Hilma in her studio at Hamngatan (1895)
Hilma in her studio at Hamngatan (1895)

In 1896, with four female artist friends, af Klint established The Five (de Fem). The group conducted séances every week until 1906, experimenting with free-flowing writing and drawing, and with other spontaneous, unplanned ways of creating (including pseudo-'exquisite corpse' drawings, a term/process later coined by the Surrealists) which aimed to allow for a more intuitive and direct way of making art. Critic Kate Kellaway, explains that these experiences "predated the surrealists by decades". In this way, privately and secretly, Hilma turned to unearthing, and furthermore understanding the unconscious as her motivation to make art. Paradoxically but also most appropriately, these abstract pursuits were rooted in a desire to understand the visible world around her in profound detail.

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Hilma af Klint Biography Continues

Indeed, she also began to study plants especially from works conducted by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and animals, having worked as a draughtsman for a veterinary institute in 1900. Simultaneously, her profound fascination with the invisible world continued (an interest which was echoed by scientific discoveries of the day with the invention of the X-ray machine, electromagnetic waves, and telegraphy) as well as her affinity with spiritual theories being developed across Europe, especially Theosophy, founded by the Russian philosopher, Madame Blavatsky, and Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy was a spiritual movement developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, which aimed to define a 'spiritual science', deeply rooted in Steiner's ideas that spirituality could be rationally understood through both science and art.

Mature Period

Hilma af Klint, unknown photographer (c.1900)
Hilma af Klint, unknown photographer (c.1900)

Af Klint, who was small in height, with blue eyes, usually wore black and was vegetarian, was profoundly changed following an otherworldly experience in 1904. During a séance, she heard a voice telling her to make paintings 'on an astral plane' in order to 'proclaim a new philosophy of life'. This was essentially a celestial commission, "from an entity named Amaliel who told her to paint the 'immortal aspects of man". Henceforth, from 1906 at age 44, af Klint embarked on her most prolific phase of abstract painting. Culminating in 1915, she had produced 193 works, each of which belonged to one of six series all over-arched by the larger body called Paintings for the Temple. She refers to this intensely creative period and process as being guided by a 'force', driven by a 'higher power' in a sort of 'divine dictation'.

This continuous creative process was only interrupted between 1908 and 1912, during which time she studied widely and took constant care of her mother, who had recently become blind. At some point during 1908, af Klint invited Rudolf Steiner, who was lecturing in Stockholm, to see her work hoping that he would be impressed (for she in turn was a great admirer of his writing). Much to af Klint's disappointment and distress, although attracted to individual works, overall Steiner disapproved of the artist's self-proclaimed role as 'medium' and advised her not to let anybody see the paintings for the next 50 years. This may have been a contributing factor for af Klint's decision stated in her last will and testament that no work could not be exhibited for 20 years after her death, and furthermore, that the paintings could not be sold separately. Although perhaps momentarily deterred, Steiner's discouragement did not last long and from 1912 onwards Hilma continued to paint the temple series with augmented vigor, always maintaining her public persona of being a landscape artist and keeping her more significant personal work a secret. Faultlessly maintaining the act of conventionality, in 1914 (at the absolute height of her artistic experiments), one of her traditional landscape paintings featured in a Baltic collective exhibition in Malmö, Sweden, the same exhibition where Kandinsky showed five recently painted early abstracts.

Later works

Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint

After 1915, once the Paintings for the Temple had been completed, af Klimt recorded that her 'divine guidance' had come to an end. In turn, the artist's approach to painting, mainly according to size and medium, changed. Firstly her oil paintings on canvas became smaller (as had been previously in her Primodial Chaos series) and then she began to experiment with watercolor on paper, returning to a more "automatic" process adopted in early meetings with 'The Five'. During 1917 she wrote over 1,200 pages entitled Studier över Själslivet (Studies of the Life of the Soul), detailing her experience as a metaphysical medium.

Her mother died in 1920, and subsequently she began another highly creative year, predominantly exploring world religions and studying the scientific intricacies of flowers and trees. She moved to Helsingborg, a coastal city in Southern Sweden, and between 1921 and 1930 often visited the Goetheanum in Switzerland (the world center for the Anthroposophy Movement), joining the Anthroposophy society, meeting Rudolf Steiner again, and becoming deeply immersed in his theories and ideas. During this time, af Klint was highly concerned with the legacy of her own work, cataloguing and photographing her paintings, documenting her practice, writing in her journals and sketchbooks, and reviewing previous discoveries. At an old age, she insightfully understood that her works would not be appreciated by the audience of her time, so she left all of her creations to her nephew, stipulating in her will that they should only be made public twenty years after her death. When she died in 1944, almost 82 years old, none of her abstract works had ever been shown to the public.


Legacy

Hilma af Klint did not have any contact with the modern movements of her time, yet she is now generally considered (whether useful or not) to be the pioneer and inventor of abstract art - her first abstract work was painted in 1906, which pre-dates Kandisnky's by five years. Because of this new understanding, according to art critic Mark Hudson, she has "become one of the great unlikely buzz-figures of our time". This delayed appreciation is due in part to her own wishes, which only made her works, comprising of over 1,200 paintings, 100 texts, and 26,000 pages of notes and sketches, available to the public decades after her death. One of her paintings was shown in 1986, in a collective exhibition in Los Angeles entitled The Spiritual in Art, yet her work only began to become more widely acclaimed after 2013, when the Modern Museum in Stockholm hosted an exhibition dedicated solely to her work. The lull in time before her 'discovery' is also due to the fact that af Klint did not participate in any form of self-promotion and thus the stamp of legitimacy from the art world took a long time to find her.

As explained by the Stockholm Moderna Museet exhibition catalogue (2013), af Klint's "abstract pioneer spirit is not crucial when we now encounter her work on a larger scale''. It is the underlying spirituality, the main source of inspiration and creativity in all her work that defines her artistic contribution to the world. Now, she is generally considered a 'woman ahead of her time', a mystical painter, and a 'cartographer of the spirit', an expression coined by art critic Kate Kellaway. All of her works belong to the Hilma af Klint Foundation and the impact of her creation is only now coming to be understood. As a human able to renounce the ego at a time in history when building a cult of personality was often a key to success, a full appreciation of af Klint's work involves following a path of intuitive intelligence which many viewers find challenging.

Although we remain far away from the entirely harmonious world that af Klint was working towards, it seems that it is within small collaborative groups where this ideal model can be successfully rehearsed. Similar to Af Klint's 'The Five', the Austrian artist, Birgit Jurgenssen worked supported by a small group called 'Die Damen', 'The Ladies'. The contemporary German artists, Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder (together known as 'Das Institut'), interested like af Klint in expression of the unconscious and the difficult to decipher, quote the artist to be one of their "heroes". Furthermore, there are other contemporary artists currently making powerful artwork shared and critiqued principally by other artists rather than by critics and gallerists. This is an individual decision based on the realization that self-promotion can be a distraction when the goal is to facilitate true meaning. Af Klint assures young artists that 'hiding' one's work does not mean that it is not still 'seen'.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Hilma af Klint
Interactive chart with Hilma af Klint's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Claude MonetClaude Monet
Camille PissarroCamille Pissarro
Edvard MunchEdvard Munch

Friends

Rudolf Steiner
Anna Cassel
Cornelia Cederberg
Sigrid Hedman

Movements

RenaissanceRenaissance
SymbolismSymbolism
Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint
Years Worked: 1882 - 1944

Artists

Cecilia Edefalk
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster
RH Quaytman
Kerstin Brätsch
Adele Röder

Friends

Anna Cassel
Cornelia Cederberg
Sigrid Hedman
Rudolf Steiner

Movements


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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr Rebecca Baillie
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Useful Resources on Hilma af Klint

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction Recomended resource

By David Lomas, Pascal Rousseau, Helmut Zander and edited by Müller-Westermann

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen

By Hilam af Klint and Julia Peyton-Jones

Hilma af Klint. The Art of Seeing the Invisible

By Kurt Almqvist

Hilma af Klint: Seeing is Believing

By Daniel Birbaum, Briony Fer and other

Hilma af Klint, Serpentine Review: 'A Sense of Unfathomable Mystery'

By Art Critic Mark Hudson
The Telegraph

Hilma af Klint/Das Institut review - neon breasts and magical abstraction

By Art Critic Adrian Searle
The Guardian

The first abstract artist? (And it's not Kandinsky) Recomended resource

By Julia Voss
Tate Britain

Hilma af Klint: A Painter Possessed Recomended resource

By Kate Kellaway
The Guardian

More Interesting Articles about Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen Recomended resource

Documentary by the Serpentine Gallery on her work for the 2016 exhibition on the same title.

Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction

Documentary about her work (with English subtitles

The Work of Hilma af Klint Recomended resource

By Professor Daniel Birnbaum

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