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.