Commissioned by a spirit guide, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint spent a decade of her life painting 193 works for a spiralling temple. The temple was never built, and when she died in 1944 she entrusted the works to a nephew, instructing that they not be opened for 20 years. It was a protective act. The world, she thought, was not ready for them.
These temple works were “far ahead of their time,” says Sue Cramer, the curator of The Secret Paintings, which comes to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in June. “For a long time, her work was dismissed because it was spiritual, and therefore not art.”
It has been a remarkable reappraisal. In 2012, when MoMA staged its canonical exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, her work was not even included. By 2018, the retrospective Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future was smashing attendance records at New York’s Guggenheim. Last year, her work was on the cover of the new book Abstract Art: A Global History.
Cramer started work on The Secret Paintings in 2017. The Heide Museum of Modern Art curator collaborated with AGNSW’s senior curator of modern and contemporary international art, Nicholas Chambers, on the presentation of the exhibition in Sydney. The Secret Paintings ranges from af Klint’s early to late works, including botanical drawings and notebooks, but the focus is on the paintings she made between 1906 and 1915 for the temple.
They are startling and extraordinary works. “They’re so outside the realm of what is expected,” Cramer says, pointing to the creative limitations on women artists at the time. Af Klint graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1887, where she had trained in landscape and portrait painting. She was also a skilled botanical artist. Her path seemed set—but in 1896 she joined a group of women who called themselves De Fem, or The Five, and a new way of working began to open to her.
While The Five held prayer meetings and seances, these events were not about contacting the dead. “It was more to be in touch with the spiritual world,” explains Cramer, “through philosophical and religious ideas relating to Theosophy and Rosicrucianism and other philosophical religions.”
In the years since, af Klint has often been described as an outlier, but her interests were part of their times. Scientific discoveries had been prompting a wide awakening to the idea that there might be hidden or invisible aspects to reality.
The Five recorded the visions they received in their sessions through automatic writing and drawing. For af Klint, these sessions gave her both the means and confidence to break with the training she had received at the Academy and find “a more abstract way” of expressing her thoughts and feelings, Cramer explains.
“One of the spirit guides, Amaliel, commissioned Hilma to take on a task to do a series of paintings on the astral plane. She took on this great task—and she knew that it would be the great task of her life—and prepared herself to do it with many months of vegetarian diet and meditation. And then she started to paint.”
Af Klint worked methodically in series, as though picking up ideas and examining them from all angles before moving onto the next. The Secret Paintings includes work from the landmark 1906 series Primordial Chaos. “It was regarded by af Klint as the very first body of work pertaining to this cycle of paintings for the temple, and it also includes her first completely abstract paintings,” Chambers says.
One is all compressed energy and spiralling lines; another is a more biomorphic shape, like an ear of wheat. The series sets the stage for a body of work about energy, life and psychic potential.
“They’re quite small,” notes Chambers. “It’s a matter of months later, the following year, that she’s working on The Ten Largest. The ambition and the confidence that’s associated with making those kinds of leaps is really quite extraordinary.”
This series, The Ten Largest, was painted in 1907. Each of the works is over three metres tall. “The scale is quite extraordinary when you think about what else is being produced at that moment in the European art world,” says Chambers.
Cramer believes af Klint was inspired by the religious murals that she’d seen in Europe. “She travelled. She wasn’t the recluse that people thought she was,” Cramer says.
The paintings in The Ten Largest follow a lifecycle, from childhood and youth to adulthood and old age. It begins exuberantly, with starbursts of colour and wonder. Adulthood is more meditative, and shown in looping, petal-shaped lines. “They’re incredibly enigmatic. The mystery of the paintings is definitely part of their charm,” says Chambers.
Other series reveal the artist’s wide-ranging interests across science, maths, geometry and the natural world. The series The Swan, 1914–15, begins with black and white swans which, by the 17th work in the series, have become interlocking concentric circles. The Swan investigates oppositions, dualities and unions—it’s a body of work that is as much about light as it is the struggles of human relationships.
For Chambers, af Klint’s paintings for the temple show a “wonderful confluence of ideas about spirituality, new developments in science, and also an awareness of what’s possible in the world of art. We have these three things coming together.”
“It’s really hard to understate the visual impact,” he adds. “They are paintings, particularly The Ten Largest, that speak to an artist with boundless creativity. They’re overflowing with ideas [and] come across as quite wildly experimental but, at the same time, I think they’re paintings that appear to be quite mindful of visual pleasure.”
Awareness of af Klint’s work grew slowly once the 20 years had passed. The turning point came in 1986 when her work was included in an exhibition of spiritual art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—but this anthropological way of viewing her practice persisted. Then, in 2013, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet staged the first major retrospective of her work, A Pioneer of Abstraction. Critics Julia Voss and Jennifer Higgie, alongside Halina Dyrschka’s 2020 documentary Beyond the Visible, are among others who have helped shift understandings of af Klint’s work, and new research about her life and art continues to come to light.
“For too long we’ve had narratives around the history of modern art and how it’s come about. It’s been too male-centred, obviously, but also defined in a certain fashion,” says Cramer. “Artists who are coming from different bodies of knowledge, like Hilma, enrich our story and our story needs to broaden and widen.”
This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.