Visual Art

The visionary abstractions of Hilma af Klint – now on show in a luminous exhibition at the AGNSW – demand that the history of Modernism be rewritten. By Miriam Cosic.

Hilma af Klint

An installation view of Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings.
Credit: Jenni Carter

Swedish artist Hilma af Klint’s otherworldly paintings were hidden for most of the 20th century. She wanted it that way. Born in Stockholm in 1862, she died in 1944 at the age of 81. Her will stipulated that her work not be shown to the public until at least 20 years later, as she believed the world was not ready for her ideas. Indeed, when a few of her works were shown for the first time in a 1986 exhibition in Los Angeles, The Spiritual in Art, they received little attention.

When her latest exhibition, Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney last week, it was eagerly anticipated. The art world today is hungry for her work, for her spiritualism, for her groundbreaking abstraction. Even an atheist and materialist like me is enchanted and moved by the alternative dimensions she evokes.

At the heart of the exhibition, 10 paintings titled The Ten Largest, Group IV – painted in a bravura outpouring in 1907 – are startlingly beautiful. Their size is overpowering – each is more than three metres tall – and their amalgam of organic shapes, botanical and mineral colours, discs and spirals, and mystical words and symbols is fascinating. Af Klint, a tiny and reserved woman, painted them on the floor – drawing to mind images of Jackson Pollock wildly throwing paint on his horizontal canvases decades later.

That was the least of her activities avant the avant-garde. Af Klint was working with abstraction ahead of men such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, although Kandinsky later claimed to have invented abstraction in 1911 with his striking work The Cossacks. The emergence of af Klint’s oeuvre demands a rewriting of art history.

Other epic works on show in Sydney include a trio of altarpieces made in 1915. More geometric than organic, they suggest pared-down and symmetrical versions of later works by the Italian Futurists absorbed by machinery – again well avant la lettre. A sequence titled The Swan explores the merging of masculinity and femininity at higher levels of consciousness and another, titled The Dove, draws on Christian symbology, including St George and the Dragon, to illustrate the battle between forces of evil and goodness.

Her later watercolours are less epic in scale but their abstractions in saturated colours are still eye-catching and emotive. Many of them directly address spiritualist interpretations of the world, such as the clairvoyant picture painted in 1932, titled A Map: Great Britain, which eerily depicts a ghostly human head blowing from the south-east as black and fiery flames and turbulent waters envelop the island nation. Others evoke ghostly human figures, one said to commemorate the death of a friend, or dissonantly coloured organic forms, such as On the Viewing of Flowers and Trees (Ear of Grain) (1922), which places a black-and-white sketch of the grain on a roiling red background suggestive of blood.

Af Klint came from an upper-class Protestant family. She grew up in the Karlberg Palace, still a military academy today, where her father taught naval studies. The family had a long tradition of naval service to the crown and was ennobled for it in 1805, hence the “af” in their name. At the media preview of the Sydney show, much was made of af Klint being a woman by curator Sue Cramer, of Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art, who collaborated with Nicholas Chambers, senior curator of modern and contemporary international art at the AGNSW. And indeed, it is gratifying for women keen to see the status of their sex redressed in art history.

Yet given her social status and Sweden’s liberalism – which meant that women artists enjoyed more equality with their male counterparts than elsewhere in Europe – it’s not so surprising that af Klint was able to enrol at the Royal Academy in 1882. Other women studied there and the group of spiritualist artists who would later form the “Group of Five” with her were all women, too.

Spiritualism was huge in the late 19th century. Af Klint participated in seances as a teenager and as an adult would embrace the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner and the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, as well as Rosicrucianism, hermeticism and esoteric offshoots of Christianity. Spiritualism was then a mainstream interest taken up by intellectuals. Those masculine abstractionist pioneers, especially Kandinsky, were absorbed by it.

Mind you, few took it to the extreme af Klint did. Early on she painted conventional works of portraiture, botanical illustration and other still lifes. But by the early 20th century she believed that her marvellously esoteric paintings were commissioned by a spirit called Amaliel, first directly guiding her hand and then in consultation.

Among her massive artistic estate – 1200 paintings, 100 texts and 26,000 pages of notes – are notebooks explaining her inspiration. As well as spiritualism, she was inspired by the scientific discoveries and technological innovations at the time, including the discovery of X-rays, which topped up her investigation of transcendental reality.

Af Klint never married but she was not a recluse. There are hints of lesbianism in some of her letters. She also belonged to various societies. Before hiding her paintings for more propitious times, she did show some at spiritualist conferences in Stockholm in 1913 and London in 1928. Their lukewarm reception from people who might have been expected to understand them best might have contributed to her withdrawal.

When she died, in the same year as Kandinsky and Mondrian but with far less fuss, she was buried with her father and mother. The family didn’t bother to update the headstone, adding to her anonymity.

After the 1986 show in Los Angeles, a monographic exhibition was shown at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, called “Secret Pictures by Hilma af Klint”. Other small shows popped up. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that her work really exploded onto the art scene. A major retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, A Pioneer of Abstraction, was the outcome of years of research by curator Iris Müller-Westermann. It is still the most popular exhibition the museum has ever held.

Müller-Westermann described the response to a British journalist at the time: “nice mothers, in control and perfectly dressed – it is chic to come to this museum – who found themselves crying but unable to explain”. Men, too, were moved.

The museum’s director, Daniel Birnbaum, told the same journalist, “Where would Picasso have been without his critics, his mistresses, his gallery owners? During her lifetime, af Klint had no lobby, zero, nothing. Her art was like a thought experiment: if a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it, did it fall?”

Today her name seems to be everywhere. Shows in Europe and the United States have occurred regularly in the past nine years. A documentary, Beyond the Visible, was released last year. The Sydney exhibition is the highlight of 2021 at AGNSW. It’s a must-see for anyone fascinated, not only by art itself, but by its history.

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 19.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "Spiritual rebirth".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.