Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was born in 1862. A prolific artist and spiritualist seeker, when she died in 1944 her legacy included more than 1,300 paintings and 125 notebooks, none of which, af Klint decreed, the world was ready to see.
The artist stipulated that her work should not be shown to the public until 20 years after her death, but it languished in obscurity much longer. Several international exhibitions in the last decade– including Hilma af Klint: The secret paintings, which was open in Sydney at the AGNSW for just a few weeks before Covid-19 restrictions closed the gallery, have now brought her work critical acclaim.
Hilma af Klint: The secret paintings is due to run until 19 September, and hopefully restrictions will lift before then. But in the meantime it is possible to experience Klint’s luminous and numinous works through a virtual walkthrough, and in the lushly illustrated monograph of the same name. In the extract from the book below, Jennifer Higgie delves into the artist’s early influences and unconventional lifestyle.
Becoming one again: The role of gender in the creation and reception of Hilma af Klint’s art
by Jennifer Higgie
She wielded her paintbrush like a wand, summoning spirits who she believed expressed their visions through her. From around 1906 to her death in 1944, Hilma af Klint’s visual language veered between cool minimalism, high-key abstraction and a profoundly codified figuration filled with references, both literal and symbolic, to plants, animals – especially birds – and humans. Archetypes jostle with enigmatic diagrams, soaring colours and invented words. She left behind a staggering body of work – thousands of paintings, drawings and notebooks – but stipulated that it was to be kept from public view for twenty years. Apart from Rudolf Steiner, who she considered her guru – more of him later – and visitors to an exhibition in London in 1928 that was part of the World Conference of Spiritual Science and its Practical Applications, the only people to bear witness to what she had achieved were her fellow spiritualists and close women friends. Yet af Klint had two personas: although most of her energy went into her spiritual pursuits, she was publicly known as a professional artist of accomplished landscapes, botanical studies and portraits. The question lingers: why, at a time when assumptions about what art was and could be were being blown apart, did she feel the need to be so secretive about the wildly original visual language she was creating?
To find an answer, we have to go back to her beginnings. Hilma af Klint was born in Solna, Sweden, in 1862; by the age of twenty she was enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. A star pupil, she received several scholarships and upon graduation rented a studio next door to the city’s cultural centre. It was less difficult to be a female artist in nineteenth-century Sweden than it was in other European countries: women were allowed to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm from 1864. By comparison, women could not enrol at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris until 1897 and German academies until 1919. Af Klint was surely aware of prominent nineteenth-century Swedish women artists such as Eva Bonnier, Hanna Hirsch, Amalia Lindegren and Maria Röhl, but all of them worked within the conventional artistic language of the day. Although women were permitted to study art, and indeed very occasionally to even make a living from it, they were rarely, if ever, encouraged to fully explore the kind of radical ideas that marked their male contemporaries as innovators – and the assumption lingered that women would stop making art when they married and devote themselves to their family. (1) By contrast, af Klint led a life of autonomy; she never married and lived with her mother’s former nurse Thomasine Anderson from 1918 until 1940.
In 1879 af Klint developed a keen interest in religion and spirituality and began participating in séances. A year later, her ten-year-old sister Hermina died from influenza, something which spurred even more the devastated af Klint’s interest in other realms. This was not considered particularly unusual: spiritualism was a respectable intellectual pursuit across Europe and the UK, and validated by many of the prominent male thinkers of the day, such as Robert Delaunay, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, Paul Klee, Gustav Mahler, Piet Mondrian and WB Yeats. It was also, in some ways, supported by the increasingly industrialised society in which it flourished. Heinrich Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves in 1886 and, in 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen’s invention of the X-ray, reflected paradigmatic shifts in how the world might be perceived: even science agreed that what was once hidden could, given the right circumstances, be made visible.
Af Klint officially joined the Theosophical Society when it was established in Stockholm in 1904, though she may have earlier made contact with the Swedish branch of the European Federation in 1889. Founded in New York in 1875 by the Russian writer, artist and mystic Helena Blavatsky and others, ‘with the aim to unify all religions, create world peace and further unlimited capacities of man’, Theosophy is one of the few belief systems that doesn’t discriminate on grounds of gender. Especially in the nineteenth century, this made it attractive to scores of women who perhaps felt sidelined by the male-centric tenets of mainstream religion. Yet, while many of af Klint’s early pictures were inspired by Theosophy, they are far too idiosyncratic to be considered simply illustrative.
Af Klint was also fascinated by developments in science and botany and she delved into the esoteric Rosicrucianism of Rudolf Steiner, which combines occultism, Jewish mysticism and Christian Gnosticism (she often wore a silver cross necklace which was engraved with a rose within a circle: the Rosicrucian symbol). In 1896, along with her close friend from art school Anna Cassel, af Klint and three other women – Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman and Mathilde Nilsson– formed their own spiritualist group: The Five (De Fem). The meetings began with a sermon and the study of a text from the New Testament and concluded with a séance, which at times resulted in mediumistic drawings and automatic writing and eventually established contact with spiritual guides.
Between 1906 and 1915, at the behest of one of these guides, Amaliel, af Klint created her monumental series The Paintings of the Temple, including her ecstatic 1907 study of the four stages of life: The Ten Largest. Childhood, youth, adulthood and old age are evoked across a suite of paintings in which delirious groups of cosmic bubbles and joyful blooms float across pale blue, orange, and lavender grounds embellished by cryptic diagrams and words. Af Klint spent years attempting to decipher the meanings of the images she had created but often came up with numerous meanings for a single symbol. In 1917–18 she wrote 1200 pages titled ‘Studies on Spiritual Life’ (‘Studier over Själslivet’), which she edited and probably rewrote in 1942. While there is still much in her journals to decode, she did translate some of the symbols: spirals signify evolution; U, the spiritual world; W, matter; and overlapping discs, unity. Yellow and roses represent masculinity, and blue and lilacs, femininity. (2) Although she often juxtaposed opposites such as black and white and male and female, ultimately unity was her goal. As the curator of the groundbreaking af Klint show at the Moderna Museet in 2013, Iris Müller-Westermann, put it: ‘The Paintings for the Temple … addresses the division of the human soul into a masculine and a feminine half, striving to become one again.’ (3)
Hilma af Klint: The secret paintings is edited by Sue Cramer with Nicholas Chambers and published by Art Gallery of New South Wales and City Art Gallery Te Whare Toi, Wellington, NZ.
1. See Ingrid Ingelman, ‘Women artists in Sweden: a two-front struggle’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol 5, no 1, 1984, pp 1–7, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1357877, accessed 21 Jan 2021.
2. Daniel Birnbaum and Emma Enderby, ‘Painting the unseen’, in Daniel Birnbaum et al (eds), Hilma af Klint: painting the unseen, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2016, p 10.
3. Iris Müller-Westermann, ‘Paintings for the future: Hilma af Klint – a pioneer of abstraction in seclusion’, in Iris Müller-Westermann et al (eds), Hilma af Klint: a pioneer of abstraction, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2013, p 42.