In the art world one of the most significant developments during the early decades of the twentieth century was the liberation of formal elements. Shape, color, texture, pattern and all the other elements of form and design had been used for hundreds of years to help create representational scenes and tell stories. Now they were freed from that supportive role and became star players on their own in a brand new arena of abstract, non-objective art.
Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich are generally credited with being the major artists who led the move toward abstraction in painting. Their ground breaking work was radical and fresh, unprecedented and revolutionary.
Recently, however, an additional artist – Hilma af Klint – has garnered attention as another painter who should be considered a pioneer of abstraction.
Working in isolation on a secret body of work, Hilma af Klint created a large group of abstract paintings that was competitive with the work of her more famous male counterparts…and her earliest abstractions actually pre-date their breakthrough efforts.
Hilma af Klint was born in Sweden in 1862 and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. At the academy Af Kilint became proficient in painting traditional landscapes and portraits, work that would provide modest financial support for the rest of her life.
This straightforward tale of a woman pursuing an education and then a career as a decorative painter was the official story of Hilma af Klint during her lifetime.
But Af Klint also had another story – one she kept from public view her entire life.
In her secret alternative world Af Klint was very spiritual and felt that she could sense what was beyond the veil. In the late 1890s she joined with four friends to form a group they called “The Five.” This tight knit band conducted weekly seances and explored esoteric religious philosophies.
Eventually Af Klint began to create paintings based on insights she gained during her meditations and seances.
In 1904 Af Klint received a “commission” from one of the spirits she contacted. The spirit told her to paint on an astral plane and to focus on the immortal aspects of man. This commission started Af Klint on the path of creating an ever-expanding secret body of work that was dictated to her from the spirit world. The dictation came forcefully and Af Klint said she “…had no idea what they were supposed to depict…I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
Her working relationship with the spirit world continued until Af Klint’s death in 1944. During those forty years Af Klint developed a full repertoire of dozens of symbolic uses for colors and shapes. Yellow, for example, signified the masculine while blue was feminine and green was perfect harmony between the two. Spirals were a stand-in for evolution and overlapping disks represented unity.
She also produced these secret paintings in a wide variety of sizes – some as small as the pages in her journals and some as large as ten feet (three meters) high.
Shortly before she died Af Klint asked her family to keep her spiritual works of art a secret for 20 more years. Honoring her wishes the family stacked and boxed 1,200 paintings as well as journals with over 26,000 pages of notes and diagrams in the attic of their family home.
The work stayed largely unknown and unseen for more than 40 years until a few of the paintings were included in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
As soon as her spiritual paintings were shown in public Af Klint’s secret work was validated. These truly visionary paintings were not only beautiful and interesting, they were way ahead of their time. Her pure abstractions were produced years before Kandinsky’s first abstract works and her automatic writings and drawings were done decades before the Surrealists introduced the same concept. Her paintings are even fresh by today’s standards – filled with the eccentric forms and unexpected juxtapositions common in the work of contemporary abstract artists.
Here is a short video showing more of Hilma af Klint’s work and discussing her story. If you are viewing this in email click here to see the video.
Learn more about Hilma af Klint.