Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was an artist ahead of her time, whose spiritual practice took her art into new territory as one of the earliest abstract painters. This year a touring exhibition and a presence at the Venice Biennale have cast fresh light on this enigmatic figure, as Gill Crabbe finds.
Hilma af Klint, 'Altarpiece, No. 1', Group X, Altarpiece Series, 1915. © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk, foto Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet. In Sweden it seems, the spiritual as expressed in art is not only acceptable but can even become the focus for outward expressions of devotion. Never before have I seen a gallery visitor – in this case a teenager – drop to their knees in prayer before a painting; or a man sitting in meditation within a darkened room illuminated by three huge canvases, works that bear no crosses or other overtly religious signs, save their titles - Altarpieces. Instead, glorious gold-painted sun disks, rainbow-coloured geometric forms, and spirals drawing us into the inner space of contemplation.
The recent exhibition at Stockholm's Moderna Museet, 'Hilma af Klint: Pioneer of Abstraction', which travels to Berlin this autumn then the Picasso Museum Malaga, has brought an under-appreciated artist back into the spotlight. An artist who has also caught the attention of Massmiliano Gioni, this year's Director of the Venice Biennale, who has included five of her works in the main exhibition at the Central Pavilion with its theme of the realm of the invisible and the domains of the imagination.
In an age when the spiritual in art is at best marginalised and at worst ridiculed, the Moderna Museet's exhibition challenges the art world's cynics by celebrating an artist who tenaciously pursued her inquiries into the spiritual dimension through her art. In doing so Klint developed a radical language of abstraction that predates Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian.
Spread from The Legacy of Hilma af Klint: Nine Contemporary Responses, 2013. © Modera Museet and Koenig Books.
Indeed, so radical and original were the works – and methodologies – of Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) that a considerable air of mystique surrounds this Swedish artist, who, sensing that her art was far ahead of its time, stipulated in her will that her art must not be exhibited for at least 20 years after her death. Painting during the explosion of scientific inventions, such as the telegraph and X-ray photography, that brought to light a world beyond our own perceived reality, and during the height of the European fascination with spiritualism, Klint kept meticulous notes of her experiments, which included automatic writing and drawing, and developing an awareness of the spiritual dimension of consciousness. Abandoning the depiction of visible reality in which she had trained at the 1880s at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, she increasingly took guidance from what she described as a higher consciousness, producing almost 200 abstract paintings between 1906 and 1915, culminating in her main body of work, 'Paintings for the Temple' – selected key works from this series are highlights of this exhibition.
Hilma af Klint, 'Primordial Chaos, No. 16', Group I, The WU/Rose Series, 1906-1907. © Courtesy Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet. 'Paintings for the Temple' comprises several series, including 'Primal Chaos', 'Parsifal Series', 'Evolution', and the monumental 'Altarpieces' of 1915. These series were voyages of discovery about the relationship of man to the cosmos, the links between macro- and microcosms, duality and non-duality or 'oneness' that exists beyond our perceived polarised view of 'us' and 'the world'. In the three huge canvases 'Altarpieces' (1915), Klint's geometric imagery oscillates between a three-dimensional spatial dynamic, to a hierarchical progression painted on the picture plane. The starting point may be a rainbow coloured ladder sweeping down from a huge gold sun disk or it may be a number of spirals penetrating into the imaginary space of the picture towards a central image of the sun with a tiny violet sphere within it – leading the eye back and forth from macrocosm to microcosm.
As well as huge canvases there are exquisite watercolours. The 'Tree of Knowledge' series, with its combination of abstract and figurative symbols, is painted with a lightness of touch reminiscent of the purity of a Klee watercolour. And series of her smaller canvases, such as 'Series V' (1920) while still exploring the big questions that continue to puzzle mankind, exude an intimacy that reveals a spiritual dimension that was clearly lived and experienced by the artist.
- The exhibition catalogue Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction includes essays by Iris Müller-Westermann, Helmut Zander, Pascal Rousseau and David Lomas. The catalogue is produced in collaboration with Hatje Cantz Verlag. Scenography by Detlef Weitz, chezweitz&partner. RRP £35.
- The Legacy of Hilma af Klint: Nine Contemporary Responses is published by Moderna Museet and Koenig Books. RRP £28.
Gill Crabbe is the RA Magazine sub-editor, freelance journalist and an artist living in UK and Finland.