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A brief history of Hilma af Klint and her paintings.

Energy. This is the first word that comes to mind when you look at this painting - "Primodial Chaos" (1906-1907). A deep blue background that seems to explode. After a while in chaos comes into being spirals. One is copper colored and the other one, much bigger, pastel green. It makes an impression of crating the world, a force rulling it. It is almost moving on canvas. It drilling, twitching, whirling, sparkling in the eyes.

„Primodial Chaos, No. 16” 1906-1907, oil on canvas, 53 x 37 cm (source: www.artsy.net)

Mystic, painter, explorer of paranormal activities. In those words and many others can be described Swedish artist – Hilma af Klint. Despite the fact she didn’t know exactly what her paintings show, she became pathfinder of nonfigurative art. Her first paintings were made in 1906 so a couple years before the time of Wassily Kandisky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimierz Malewicz. Those are well known as the establishers of abstractive painting of 20th century. Unfortunately because of them she had to wait to be discovered. 

When the series "Paintings for the Temple" (1906-15) was created, no one saw it in all its grandness. Meanwhile the world was quite delighted with Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Henri Matisse's "Dance II". Hilma af Kliny and her art cannot be seen in the same context, since her work were seen by the public over twenty years after her death. Here is a short story of this remarkable woman and a recipe for abstract art.

Hilma was born on 26th of October in 1862 at Karblerg Castle in Sweden. She is a child of Mathilda Sonntag and navy officer Vicotr af Kllint. She is raising on Adelsö islad (Mälaren lake). When future artist is at the age of 10, her family moved to Norrtullsgatan in Stockholm. However she is coming every summer back to the place she was brought up. When she is 17, she begins taking part in spiritual sessions, which play an important role in her life. Next year her sister Hermina passes away, thus Hilma is going deeper into religion and spiritism.

Hilma af Klint at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, 1885 (source: www.theguardian.com)

After turning twenty, she is admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Hilma is one of the first omen studying at the Faculty of Painting. In Sweden women could attend to the university from 1864, however there was still a belie f that they could not create great art and only copy old masters works. In 1887 Hilma graduates with honors and - thanks to the scholarship - she can work in the studio in Kungsträdgården. This is a very special place, the centre of Stockholm, where she as a debut painter gained recognition. In the atelier Hilma works with two other women. It is worth emphasising that earlier in the same place Ernst Josephson and Edvard Munch exhibited their works. The author of the iconic "Scream" becomes an nspiratuon for young Hilma who sees in his painting a search for inner man.

Let’s look beyond her story. It is the middle of 19th century, the time of fashion for spirits. It is empowering due to scientific discovers such as electromagnetic waves (1886) and X-Rays (1895). Hilma has been dealing with spirtism even as a teenager. She is  interested in theosophy by Madame Blavatsky (Jelena Pietrowna Blavatska) and symbolic Christian Rosenkreutz.

In the 90s Af Klint and four other artists founded the Group De Fem (The Five). Anna Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, Mathilda Nilsson and Hilma - all share the same beliefs, fascination by theosophy, religion and paranormal activities. For the ten following years the meet every Friday at séances. They sit in the dim light at a round table in a spacious room. Hilma is a medium. The ritual lasts several dozen minutes and includes prayer, reading Bible and meditation, then is comes into contact with the spirits, which were called "High" (De Höga Mästare). There is always a notebook and writing devices on the table. She has a heavy breath, eyesight becomes absent, it's hard to say where she is looking. During the ritual, Hilma uses automatic writing (which the surrealists rediscovered thirty years later) and creates drawings. Straight away she chooses colors and her had is always sure, doubtless. When the séance reach to the finish line she signs the drawing with the abbreviation
"D. F." (De Fem).

Hilma is researching religions of the world, diving into life sciences and atoms. All of those researches are described by herself. Many of abstractive art’s pathfinders such as Kandinsky, Malewicz, Modrian or Kupka want to cross the border of physical world. Abstractive painting becomes the rope for creating new aesthetical feelings.

During one of the meetings, in 1904, "The Supreme" Amaliel instructs her to paint a series of paintings reflecting the immortal aspect of humanity, spiritual reality. Two years later Hilma starts working on "Paintings for the Temple". The first group of canvas is called "Primodial Chaos" and consist of tweny-six works. Only a few can see them, because she keeps the in secret. Unfortunatley her mother gets sick and she has to cease painting. During this time, nothing is created except for one portrait. Hilma returns to the serie in 1912-15 and creates "The Swan" and "The Dove" canvases. The whole series includes 193 paintings. At the time this is one of the first examples of abstract painting in the West. Hilma experiments with form and theme and as  the result we have unusual work. In the personal notes she says: 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 brush stroke. She shows the painting to Rudolf Steiner, but he clearly states that he does not understand them and he advies her to wait fifty years befoer showing them to the public. Nevertheless, he likes some of the paintings; the one similar to the eastern mandalas - "Evolution No. 15" is for him a spiritual self-portrait of her (Hilma anticipated the mandala of Carl Gustav Jung).

Cycle „Paintings to the Temple” 1906-15 (source: www.guggenheim.org)

In the same time in the other part of the world Wassily Kandinsky creates his own theory of art. Supposedly, one day he come back home and spotted strange painting on the wall. It is unprecedented, such different to other paintings she had created until that time. Only forms emanating with shine were visible on this canvas. After all he realises it’s his own picture, hanging upside down. This short story tells about his desire for deleting figurative elements from painting area. It was a spur to painting picture known as “Abstract watercolour”, also writing a book “Concerning the spiritual art”. What is the purpose of Russian’s art? We can assume those were finding and unleashing spiritual forces of an old man, city slicker, who had just forgot what is the great art about.


Wassily Kandinsky "Untitled" (First Abstract Watercolor) 1910 (source: www.niezlasztuka.cet)

Abstract painting also has a second pioneer - Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Next to Rembrandt or Vincent van Gogh he is the most important artist in the history of this country. He seeks for harmony and proportion expressed through lines. Art, mathematics, rationality, rhythm - that's his statement. Paintings must consist of primary colors. That's how he called into being "Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow" (1930). However, earlier, Kazimir Malevich creates a painting, which anchored in pop culture "Black Square" (1915). Suprematism assumes a total detachment of art form reality, maximum simplifications of forms, the main purpose is "the supremacy of pure artistic feeling".

Piet Mondrian „Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow” 1930 (source: www.rynekisztuka.pl)

Those surnames above were mentioned on purpose, because Hilma creates her first abstractive work in 1906, while Kandinsky appeared in 1910, even earlier then Malewicz and Mondrian. In that way we can assume that between fathers of that art was one mother. Obviously it can’t be strictly assumed who was the first, the lines are usually blurred. What is important here is that Hilma was seen as the world class artist, whose theories are revolutionary as well. 

Af Klint after completing "Paintings for the Temple" Hilma still creates metaphysical works, but there is a change in her work - she becomes more independent, liberated from spiritualism (although the remains a source of her inspiration). Now we have two series "Parsifal" and "Atom" which shows her interst in natural sciences and botany. During this time Hilma writes a notebook with her spiritual thoughts. It turns out that the transcribed text has 1240 pages (Studier over Själslivet from 1917-18).


Exhibition "Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”  in the Guggenheim Museum. New York 2019, cycle „Parsifal” 1916 (source: www.guggenheim.org)

It isn’t until 1920s, after her mother’s death, when she beginsreal intensive part of creative work. She joins the Theosophical Association and met already mentioned Rudolph Steiner, founder of following organisation. She abandons painting for one year, but returned with new form. After that transformation she isnn;t no more interested in geometric shapes, but colours. In years 1921 to 1930 she is studying the another faculty antrophosopic. She is consumed with Steiner’s lectures so from that period of her life no work is known. It’s said that in 1920s she created series of pictures with flowers, lichens and moss for National Library in Dornach. That cycle is also a part of esoteric life science classification system. Unfortunately the works disappeared and no one can be found until today. Meanwhile she was studying Goethe’s colour theory too. The author of “Sorrows of young Werther” was assimilated to painters. Supposedly he asked a couple of them about how colours comes into being. Any of answers given were satisfying so he decided to find own theory and “Theory of colours” (“Zur Farbenlehre”) was published in 1810. With it he was trying to disprove Newton’s colour theory. He was supposed to say: White light should contain other colors in? That make no sense!”.  According to him colours are created because of cooperation of light and darkness and they influence emotions (unlike Newton – for him they were neutral). Goethe created his own circle of timbres, but he tried to include bipolar structure (like magnets). Hilma wasn’t the only one interested in colours and lights, Kandinsky mentioned it in many texts  as well.

In 1932, Hilda af Klint creates two paintings: "Blitz nad London" and "The Mediterranean Naval Battle". There would be nothing extraordinary about it were it not for the fact that they are scenes that took place during World War II seven years later. To this day these canvases are considered as visionary. At the end of his life, in 1944, she moved to his cousin Hedvig in Ösby. However, in the same year 82-year-old Hilma dies from injuries in a tram accident.

Altogether she created over 1200 abstractive paintings, which supposed to be embodiment of invisible dimensions. All her life she was trying to discover the misery, which actually went badly.  This secret can be named as greek “Atopos”, which means “the one, who can’t find himself a place”. Her will was as enigmatical as her paintings. She made it clear that her works can’t be published for 20 years after her death. She was convinced that no one will understand her works. Her last dream was to keep all her collection together, not dividing it. All she left was saved by her nephew Erik. In one of interviews he said it was such a miracle that paintings survived, while they were kept in the attic with roof made from tin which causes high temperatures especially  in summer.


„The Dove, No. 2” 1914-15 (source: www.curiator.com)

In the 70s in cooperation with the Anthroposophical Society, Erik estblished a foundation named after her, which still takes care of  the legacy of Hilma. The family wanted to give the collection as a gift to Moderna Museet in Stockholm, but donation were refused. Only later thanks to art historian Åke Fant the international audience "meet" her output at the Nordik conference in Helsinki (1984). Later the paintings were published for the first time at an exhibition at the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles in 1986 at the exhibition "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985".

In 2012 Museum of Modern Art in New York decided her paintings will not be included in exhibition about abstractionism pioneers, but the year after Hilma af Klint paintings were chosen to represent Sweden at the Bienalle in Venice. Also Moderna Museet redeemed itself and organised retrospective monographic exhibition of artist’s works. After all this year, 75years after Hilma’s death her genius was appreciated. Guggenheim’s Museum in New York organised exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Pantings for the Future”, which broke attendance record. A week before closure over 600 000 people visited the event, which is the record in 60-year history of museum.


Exhibition "Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”  in the Guggenheim Museum. New York 2019 (source: www.guggenheim.org)

Hilma was convinced that reality was not limited to the material world. She conveys a transcendental message through symbols and letters. These works can be understood as searches for new artistic forms. She was intersted in theozophy, christianity and philosphy like contemporary people. What is worth emphasizing is the fact that her abstract works were created independently of contemporary movements developing in Europe.

She drew from modern psychology, spiritualism, occultism and eastern mythology. She had wide range of hobbies, what helped her being mystic outsider, despite the fact she likes scientific researches. Her œuvre is the way to recognize yourself, the path of life context at all. The term of seer perfectly describes her. She was a person, who was able to see more than material word can show now and here. She saw shaded essence of things.

Afterwards we can say that abstractionism began with the Swedish artist. Perhaps, of not her secretiveness and last will, the world would have appreciated her work earlier. However, she was convinced that it would take years before someone understood her. Now everyone should add the name of Hilma af Klint to the group of ancestors of abstractionism.


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