Hilma af Klint: The spirit moved her

Published 29 February 2016

The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was making abstract art before Kandinsky, but her spiritualist methods have undermined her standing in art history. Now her work is being reassessed at the Serpentine Galleries.

  • From the Spring 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Hilma af Klint received her calling in 1904. During a séance, a spirit power told the Swedish artist that she was to execute paintings “on the astral plane,” representing man’s transcendental truth rather than mortal likeness.

    Af Klint began work on her spirit commission in 1906. Between November and the following March, she produced a series of 26 small-scale oil paintings titled ‘Primordial Chaos’ (Group 1, No. 7; pictured). Executed largely in blues, greens and yellow-golds – an elemental palette of water, earth and light – these canvases served as preliminary sketches for a body of work that would occupy Af Klint until 1915. By the time she had finished, these Paintings for the Temple comprised 193 works depicting a vast personal cosmology. They are the focus of the largest survey of Af Klint’s work in the UK to date, which brings a number of these paintings to London for the first time.

    Af Klint graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1887, producing landscapes and portraits in the romantic style popular at the time. However, with the first Primordial Chaos canvas, she entirely abandoned representation in favour of a richly symbolic vocabulary of abstract forms and looping letters. Five years before Kandinsky claimed to have made the first abstract painting, Af Klint’s works – made in near-complete isolation – uncannily anticipate his statement, made in 1912 in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, that painting must communicate, “the internal truth that only art can divine, which only art can express by those means of expression which are hers alone”.

    Though born into a Lutheran family, Af Klint attended her first séance at the age of 17. By 1896, she was meeting with four women spiritualists, and together they called themselves “The Five”. In trance-like states, they experimented with automatic drawing and writing – techniques that the Surrealists would turn towards three decades later in an attempt to access the drives of the unconscious. The group were early adherents of Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy, one of a number of esoteric doctrines positing realities beyond the observable world that gained traction as the 19th century passed into the 20th – when electromagnetic waves had just been discovered, atomic structure was being theorised and the church was in convulsions following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.

  • In August 1907, after the completion of Primordial Chaos, Af Klint began work on the monumental series on paper ‘The Ten Largest’, which charts the four ages of man (Youth; pictured). Snail-shell spirals, concentric circles and zygote-like forms nestle amongst coiled fronds and splayed petals (she also produced intricate botanical drawings), all dancing against radiant tempera backgrounds from terracotta orange to faded lilac. Forms bulge, overlap, conjoin in what an eye informed by contemporary science might liken to celestial bodies or cell mitosis; they are extraordinary pictures, immense and ecstatic.

    Af Klint painted prolifically, completing the series by December 1907, but in secret. She showed almost no-one her work. She noted that she was hardly conscious of what she was painting, acting instead as a medium, a receiver: “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.” The following year, Af Klint was visited by the Swiss philosopher and founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, who was on a trip to Stockholm. He observed that it would be another 50 years before the world developed enough to understand her art. Later that year, she gave up her studio in order to care for her blind, widowed mother and painted nothing – with the exception of a single portrait – until 1912.

    When Af Klint returned to her brushes, she was less directly influenced by spirit guidance. Crisper geometric forms emerge in the paintings; her palette is less diluted, her symbols more deliberate. The ‘Paintings for the Temple’ culminate with the large ‘Altarpiece’ trio. Two of these depict stepped equilateral triangles, one pointing upwards, the other standing on its apex; they flank a central panel containing a gilded orb whose thick black outline, like a protective membrane, almost touches the edges of the canvas. The theosophist’s six-pointed star, surrounded by a circle, looks out from the centre. The physical world aspires upwards, towards the ethereal rays of light; the spirit world descends, becoming darkened by form.

    When Af Klint died aged 81, in 1944, none of her esoteric paintings had ever left the studio. She bequeathed everything – over 1,000 paintings and drawings, and 150 books filled with diagrams, sketches and notes – to her nephew Erik, stipulating that nothing be shown until 20 years after her death. In fact it took many more decades, and the work of some enlightened curators, for Af Klint’s art to be acknowledged for what it is: an important chapter in the history of modernism. Her dazzlingly original work can now take its place in an age-old artistic tradition of media in the service of higher messages, which has given us so many of history’s greatest works.

    Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen* is at the Serpentine Galleries from 3 March until 15 May.

    • Enjoyed this article?

      Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine

      As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door.

      Why not join the club?

      RA Magazine