In the vast landscape of art history, there are pioneers who challenge the norms, push boundaries, and redefine artistic expression. One such trailblazer, often overshadowed by her male contemporaries, is Hilma af Klint. Her name might not be as widely recognized as Picasso or Mondrian, but her contributions to the world of abstract art are unparalleled. In this article, we embark on a journey to unveil the forgotten pioneer of abstract art, Hilma af Klint, and explore the enigmatic beauty of her work.
Hilma af Klint was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1862. Raised in a family of naval commanders and artists, she developed a keen interest in both science and spirituality from an early age. Hilma af Klint embarked on her artistic education at Tekniska Skolan in Stockholm, where she delved into the study of portrait painting. From 1882 to 1887, she pursued her artistic training as a student at the Royal Academy of the Fine Arts. Following her graduation, she established her studio in Kungsträdgården, situated in the heart of Stockholm, where she dedicated her creative endeavours until 1908. During this period, she skillfully crafted and showcased portraits and landscapes characterized by a naturalistic aesthetic. She also began to embrace the esoteric teachings of Theosophy, a spiritual movement that blended science, philosophy, and mysticism. These influences would profoundly shape her artistic path.
Hilma af Klint
The Tree Of Knowledge No. 5 Series W
“The Tree of Knowledge No. 5” is a spiritual and mystical painting that explores themes of creation, evolution, and the interconnectedness of the universe. The series as a whole delves into the symbolism of trees, which hold significant meaning across various cultures and religions. Trees often represent knowledge, growth, and the connection between the earthly and the divine.
During the late 1870s, Hilma af Klint actively participated in séances, gatherings where mediums purportedly communicated with the deceased. This era was marked by a profound fascination with imperceptible phenomena. This fascination can be understood within the context of scientific breakthroughs, including the discovery of X-rays capable of exposing internal human organs and the exploration of electromagnetic waves, which laid the foundation for advancements in radio and telephony.
In 1906, Hilma af Klint received a calling from what she believed was a higher power to create a series of paintings for a temple. These monumental works, known as “The Paintings for the Temple,” marked a significant departure from conventional art. She delved into abstraction before pioneers like Kandinsky and Malevich, creating a visual language that was uniquely her own.
Hilma af Klint
The Ten Largest, No. 1 Childhood
“No. 1 Childhood” is the first painting in the series called “the Ten Largest” and serves as an exploration of the concept of childhood as a foundational stage of human existence. The painting is characterized by bold colors, geometric shapes, and intricate symbols, all arranged in a dynamic composition. It depicts various abstract forms that represent the development of a child’s mind and the unfolding of their consciousness.
The “Paintings for the Temple” consist of a total of 193 individual works, divided into several distinct groups. The majority of the paintings are large-scale, ranging from around five to ten feet in height and width. They were originally intended to be displayed in a circular temple setting. One of the most striking aspects of the series is the intricate and abstract symbolism employed by Hilma af Klint. She developed a complex system of geometric shapes, colours, and symbols to convey spiritual concepts and philosophical ideas. These symbols include spirals, circles, triangles, and various organic and geometric forms.
The color palette is vibrant and varied. Hilma af Klint employed a wide range of hues, including bold primaries, rich earth tones, and delicate pastels. The colors were carefully chosen to evoke different emotional and spiritual states and to create a harmonious and visually engaging composition. The themes explored in the series are deeply connected to spiritual and philosophical ideas. Hilma af Klint’s works often explore the duality of nature and spirit, the balance between masculine and feminine energies, and the connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. The paintings are filled with symbols representing cosmic forces, evolution, and the interplay between the physical and metaphysical realms.
Hilma af Klint
The Dove No.2
“The Dove No. 2” is part of a series of paintings called “The Dove” (also known as “The Swan”) that af Klint worked on between 1914 and 1915. This series explores themes of duality, transformation, and spiritual evolution. The dove or swan symbolizes purity, peace, and spiritual awakening in many cultures. “The Dove No. 2” is a large-scale abstract painting measuring approximately 239 x 239 centimeters (94 x 94 inches). It features a central composition of an abstracted dove or swan rendered in bold, geometric shapes and vibrant colors. The geometric background creates a sense of energy and movement.
Hilma af Klint employed a combination of delicate brushwork and bold, expressive gestures in her paintings. The surfaces of the works are often richly textured, with layers of paint applied in intricate patterns. This technique adds depth and dimension to the compositions, creating a sense of movement and energy. The “Paintings for the Temple” series can be seen as a visual narrative, depicting an unfolding spiritual journey. The works are arranged in specific sequences, following a progression that reflects Hilma af Klint’s exploration of higher realms of consciousness and the evolution of human spirituality.
Many of Hilma af Klint’s abstract works are characterized by a rich tapestry of symbols and themes. Her art often explores the interplay between nature and spirituality, using geometric forms, botanical motifs, and celestial symbols. By incorporating dualities and hidden meanings, she sought to express the profound interconnectedness of the universe.
Hilma af Klint
Alterpiece No. 1
“Altarpiece No. 1” is one of three large canvases that af Klint created as part of her final group of works for the temple project. These paintings were intended to be shown together in the sanctuary or innermost part of the envisioned temple. They represent a culmination of af Klint’s exploration of forms, colors, and motifs throughout her artistic journey. “Altarpiece No. 1” and the other two works in the series are believed to relate to Theosophy’s version of evolutionary theory. In Theosophy, evolution occurs in two directions: ascending from the physical to the spiritual and descending from the divine to the material world. Af Klint’s altarpieces reflect this concept in their composition and symbolism.
Despite the depth and innovation of her art, Hilma af Klint remained largely unknown during her lifetime. Her work challenged prevailing artistic conventions, and she chose to keep her paintings hidden from the public eye until at least twenty years after her death. It was only in the late 20th century that her legacy began to be unearthed, and major exhibitions finally showcased her groundbreaking contributions to abstract art.
One of the key figures in this rediscovery was the Swedish art historian and curator, Åke Fant, who encountered af Klint’s work in the 1970s and recognized its significance. Fant’s research and advocacy played a pivotal role in bringing Hilma af Klint to wider attention. Furthermore, the Guggenheim Museum in New York organized a major retrospective exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s work in 2018-2019, titled “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” This exhibition, along with subsequent exhibitions and publications, significantly contributed to the renewed interest and recognition of Hilma af Klint’s artistic contributions.
Hilma af Klint
Buddha’s Standpoint in the Earthly Life No. 3a
Buddhism, with its emphasis on spirituality, enlightenment, and interconnectedness, played a significant role in shaping Hilma af Klint’s worldview and artistic approach. She was drawn to Buddhist philosophies, such as the concept of the interconnectedness of all beings and the idea that reality extends beyond what is perceptible by the senses. In her notebooks, Hilma af Klint made references to Buddhist concepts and symbols, including mandalas and lotus flowers. Mandalas, with their intricate geometric patterns, are often used in Buddhist and Hindu traditions as visual aids for meditation and as representations of the universe.
Hilma af Klint’s influence extends far beyond her own time. Her visionary approach to abstraction paved the way for future generations of artists. With her bold experimentation and spiritual exploration, she set the stage for the abstract expressionists of the mid-20th century. Today, her work continues to captivate audiences and spark conversations about the role of women in art history and the boundaries of artistic expression.
Hilma af Klint, the forgotten pioneer of abstract art, defied the constraints of her era to create a body of work that transcends time and conventional norms. Through her deeply spiritual and symbol-laden paintings, she unlocked a new realm of artistic expression. As her art gains recognition and her name becomes synonymous with innovation, it is vital to acknowledge her immense contributions to the abstract art movement. Let us celebrate Hilma af Klint as a true visionary, an artist who dared to see the world through a different lens and, in doing so, reshaped the course of art history.