How the Swedish Mystic Hilma af Klint Invented Abstract Art
In a beguiling 1915 painting by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, two swans—one black and one white—kiss. They float toward each other; the black swan rises up through a chalky field as the white one swirls down against an inky plane. Their elegant orange beaks and the tips of their contrasting wings meet at the stark dividing line that separates their two worlds. In the subsequent paintings that continue this motif, the swans shapeshift. They become ethereal, curving spirits that converge in flashing spirals, transforming again into beams of energy that rush through a colorful, geometric world at once ordered and infinite.
These kinds of poetically transcendent journeys characterize af Klint’s spirit-guided paintings, which were inspired by her interactions with beings on a higher plane. Most portrayals describe the marginal artist—now hailed as the true inventor of abstract painting—as an eccentric, witchy recluse. Had she not stipulated in her will that her visionary paintings remain out of sight for 20 years following her death, one might write off af Klint’s peripheral status as merely a natural result of her total isolation.
“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” a major retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (on view through April 23, 2019), hopes to upend this narrative. “There are all these myths about her and her life…that she was by herself somewhere in a cabin,” said Tracey Bashkoff, the museum’s director of collections and senior curator, who organized the show, in an interview with Artsy. “But that’s not exactly accurate: She was not isolated.” Contrary to popular belief, af Klint was intermittently connected to both mainstream society and the Swedish artistic vanguard—yet she chose to believe that the world was not ready to understand and accept what she knew was groundbreaking work.
Af Klint was born outside of Stockholm in 1862 to an upper-middle-class family. After the death of her younger sister, an 18-year-old af Klint turned to esoteric spiritual movements like Theosophy and Rosicrucianism, which attempted to reconcile what are usually seen as diametrically opposed belief systems: Christianity and Eastern philosophies commingled, with science and religion reinforcing—instead of contradicting—each other. She regularly began to host seances to communicate with the dead.
Af Klint may have pursued an interest in the occult, but meanwhile, she attended the traditional Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Her portraits and landscapes from this period are technically proficient but largely unremarkable, consistent with the conventional naturalistic style of the day. Still, she was successful and talented enough to graduate from the academy with honors, and the school provided her with a shared studio right in the heart of the city’s art scene. The building also housed a salon, which, in 1894, exhibited works by up-and-coming artist Edvard Munch, a show she most likely would have seen.
But it’s not the avant-garde that inspired the shift in af Klint’s work to spiritually derived abstraction. During this time, the artist became increasingly involved with local spiritualist groups and soon initiated her own independent circle with four female friends. They called themselves “De Fem” (“The Five”). At weekly meetings, this coven prayed, meditated, and held seances to commune with spiritual guides.
While this might conjure for the contemporary reader a gaggle of girls sitting eagerly around a Ouija board, Bashkoff urges us to see these rituals as a product of their time. Af Klint’s “spiritual practice wasn’t as unusual as it sounds to us today,” she explained. “It was a much more popular and accepted trend.” Spiritualist movements were in vogue in the U.S. and Europe at the turn of the century, especially among literary and artistic circles (including the artists generally considered to be the forerunners of abstraction: Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian). At the tail end of the 19th century, a string of scientific developments were radically altering prevailing ideas about the world. Darwin’s evolutionary theories, while not yet entirely accepted in academic circles, matriculated into almost every sphere of popular culture. The discovery of subatomic particles, radioactivity, and the X-ray confirmed for spiritualists that there was, in fact, a godly, invisible realm of existence.
Yet there was another compelling reason for af Klint to seek out these groups. While mainstream art circles were wary of female talent and participation, “movements like Theosophy and Spiritualism were very heavily run by women,” Bashkoff said. “These were areas of society where women were at the fore as leaders.” Theosophy was founded by a woman, Helena Blavatsky, and both movements supported women’s suffrage. Was af Klint a feminist? “It’s hard to say,” Bashkoff offered. “She really shaped her life so that she could get the most support she could out of the systems around her, which I think is feminist.”
De Fem were apparently successful in making contact with the spirit guides, who, over the years, identified themselves as Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor. The women documented their experiences with these so-called “High Masters” in notebooks, collaborating on automatic drawings filled with biomorphic forms inspired by their visions. Soon enough, in 1904, Georg and Ananda tasked the women with a special mission that would ultimately transform the trajectory and very purpose of af Klint’s life: to convey the spiritual world through painting, and to design a temple to house the resulting works. The other members of the group declined the charge, cautioning that such a prolonged, intense engagement with the spirit realm could lead to madness. But on January 1, 1906, af Klint promised Amaliel that she would undertake this “great commission.”
First, however, she underwent rituals of purification, not unlike ancient Biblical edicts to bathe before offering an animal sacrifice at the temple. For about 10 months, af Klint prepared for her artistic task by adopting a vegetarian diet and working on her self-discipline. Disciplined she became.
She began “The Paintings for the Temple” in 1906, and, even with several periods of rest (as mandated by the spirit guides), by 1908, she had completed the first 111 pieces in a monumental cycle that would come to encompass 193 works on canvas and paper by 1915. She also kept obsessively detailed notebooks about her spiritual and painterly developments, including one that serves as a dictionary for her symbolic visual language.
The early works in this series, entitled “Primordial Chaos” (1906–07), comprise 26 small canvases that introduce concerns which would remain central to all of her later paintings. These works, in an ordered progression, illustrate the birth of the world. Here af Klint explores the dichotomies—male and female, heaven and earth, positive and negative—that structure our existence. She also unveils the symbolic lexicon she would continue to develop throughout her career. The ever-shifting primordial soup that evolves in these works is primarily rendered in blue, yellow, and green. Inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), af Klint interpreted blue as female and yellow as male; their unity is signified by green. Spiral forms appear often, as they do in the automatic drawings undertaken by De Fem—a potent symbol af Klint would use again and again to suggest growth, progress, and evolution.
Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 5 (Kunskapens träd, nr 5), 1915. Photo by Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm and the Guggenheim Museum.
Hilma af Klint, No. 1 (Nr 1) from The Atom Series (sere Atom) , 1917. Photo by Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm and the Guggenheim Museum.
The early “Paintings for the Temple” were guided, af Klint understood, by instructions transmitted from the spiritual guides. Whereas Kandinsky’s brand of spiritual abstraction looked inward to the artist’s own unconscious muse, af Klint literally felt that astral spirits were working through her. But as she noted in her journals, “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.” Af Klint largely kept “The Paintings for the Temple” to herself until 1908, when she invited the Theosophist Rudolf Steiner to her studio. While Steiner appreciated the symbolic nature of her work, he “was wary of the mediumistic nature of her practice,” as Bashkoff writes in her catalogue essay, “and encouraged her to rely more on the process of introspection.” This skepticism by a figure she respected, Bashkoff suggests, may have influenced the artist’s decision to keep her work private even after her death.
Af Klint took a four-year break from the series to care for her ailing mother. When she returned to the project in 1912, she no longer received her subject matter from a High Master. Instead, her compositions followed her own inner visions. The “Tree of Knowledge” works, completed between 1913 and 1915, reflect this crucial shift: The trees’ natural subject matter, curved lines, and ornate details suggest a stylistic connection to the then-popular Art Nouveau aesthetic, yet maintain the artist’s core beliefs in the search for “divine singularity”—“a basic unity lost at the moment of the world’s creation,” Bashkoff writes.
Over the course of her life, af Klint exhibited her paintings only a few times, usually at spiritualist gatherings and conferences. One exhibition, however, suggests a deeply missed connection that could have changed the course of art history. Some of her figurative paintings were exhibited in the 1914 Baltic Exhibition in Malmö alongside abstract works by none other than Kandinsky, the Russian artist who, for the last 100 years or so, has been credited as the inventor of abstract painting. Kandinsky also dabbled in spiritualism; his influential 1911 manifesto On The Spiritual in Art is heavily influenced by such theories. The two seemed to circle around each other, though there’s no evidence that they ever met. Kandinsky and the other avant-garde pioneers of nonobjective art never knew that a woman artist had beaten them to the punch, inventing a spiritually based abstraction almost a decade earlier.
Hilma af Klint, Untitled , 1920. Photo by Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm and the Guggenheim Museum.
By a twist of fate, could Hilma af Klint have been our Wassily Kandinsky? What if Hilla Rebay, the spiritually minded artist who advised the Guggenheim’s collection, had encountered af Klint at one of Steiner’s meetings before Kandinsky? Would Rebay have revered af Klint, like she did the Russian, as “a prophet of almost religious significance?”
When it came time for Rebay to ideate a permanent home for the Guggenheim’s collection, she reached out to Frank Lloyd Wright, charging him with creating “a temple of spirit.” She could not have known that before her death, af Klint proposed a design for her own temple to house her life’s work: a three-level conical structure that bears an eerie resemblance to the coiled shell of the Guggenheim. Af Klint envisioned her paintings inhabiting such a spiraled environment. Visitors would embark on a winding spiritual journey toward the temple’s inner sanctum, which would culminate with her monumental “Altarpieces” paintings, an examination of the ever-changing cosmos, which she called the “summary of the series so far.” In many ways, the Guggenheim retrospective fulfills the artist’s long-buried dream.
It’s a strange phenomenon that af Klint’s work will influence a contemporary generation more than her own peers. She placed a 20-year embargo on exhibiting her work following her death—not in order to be secretive, as Bashkoff initially assumed, but as a “gesture of controlling and trying to determine the audience of her work,” which, to Bashkoff, reiterates her agency as an artist. Af Klint was “grappling with the works she was committed to, wanting them to be received in a safe space by a spiritually ready audience.”
Even after the 20 years expired, in 1966, her descendants had difficulty finding museums or galleries who would show af Klint. It wasn’t until a 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985,” that the public first experienced her transcendent paintings in person. Are we ready now for what Hilma af Klint had to say?