Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) is today regarded as one of the pioneers within abstract art. She made the “invisible visible”. She presented philosophical ideas and spiritual concepts in physical forms on canvas, for us to see and reflect upon. Philosophical ideas and art are like two communicating vessels in Hilma af Klint´s paintings.
Her means of expression was in abstract paintings, studded with symbols in order to guide us. These paintings were primarily influenced by Rosicrucianism, Theosophy and Christianity, the symbols of which permeate her paintings. Her abstract paintings started already in 1906 – well prior to other Western artists.
But who was Hilma af Klint?
She was born in 1862 outside of Stockholm at the Karlberg Castle, where she spent her first ten years. She was the fourth child of five, and spent her summers at the family farms on Adelsö in the Mälar Lake. She was born into a navy family, with roots going back to the mid-1700s. Her ancestors were famous having drawn “The Sea Maps of Sweden” and calculated the “Marine Navigation Tables”.
Her father was head of the navy cadets at the Karlberg Castle, whom he taught astronomy, navigation, mathematics and general seamanship, knowledges that were spilled over on the young Hilma af Klint. Already as a child, she showed great artistic talents. She studied at the Technical School (Konstfack). At the age of 20, she entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After five years, she was examined in 1887 with honours. As a scholarship she was entitled to use one of the studios owned by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at Hamngatan 5, where she remained for twenty years.
These premises also housed the Blanch Salong and the Blanch Café, which constituted the center of the Stockholm cultural activities. And here we find Hilma af Klint in her studio, a first-hand witness to the cultural events of that time.
Hilma af Klint was a slender and small (1.57 m) woman with a beautiful face. She was well balanced and with a strong will. There were no signs of sentimentality or fantasies in her character. She was a vegetarian. After a disappointing love affair with a Dr Helleday, she took the unconventional decision to remain unmarried. When her mother became blind in 1908, Hilma af Klint had to take care of her and abandon her studio. After her mother’s death in 1920, her freedom to travel increased. She moved for the winters to Helsingborg and later to Lund in 1935. In 1944, when in her 80’s, she moved back to Stockholm and lived with her cousin Hedvig af Klint at Djursholm. Hilma af Klint passed away that same autumn from injuries received in a bus accident
Hilma af Klint lived during a period of pronounced uncertainty. As a result of the industrialization, people moved from the country side to the towns, cutting off their social networks. In addition, the discoveries within natural sciences (radio waves, X-rays, etc.) made people realize that there are aspects, which we may not perceive with our five senses. In this environment of changes, various religious movements shoot up like mushrooms. People were searching for something to hold on to. This was common in all levels of society.
Hilma af Klint was also a searcher – but a rather critical one. At the age of seventeen, she tried spiritism, but left them within a year or so, as she did not regard them serious enough. She joined the Theosophical Society already during their introductory year in Sweden (1889) and remained with them until 1915/1916. She participated in the Theosophical World Congress in Stockholm in June 1913. She joined the Edelweiss Society in 1896. As they did not give her the required feed-back for her spiritual development, Hilma af Klint and four other young women left the Edelweiss Society and established the group “The Five”.
“The Five” (1906-1907) were important to Hilma af Klint, as she during this ten year period developed spiritually in order to assume the task of painting the “Paintings for the Temple”. The meetings of “The Five” started with a prayer, meditation and sermon in front of an altar with a triangle and a cross with a central rose (a Rosicrucian symbol). It continued with the analysis of the New Testament. A spiritual meeting followed, during which they made contact with spirits and spiritual leaders, the latter called “The High Ones”. These contacts were verbally expressed by the medium, as well as by automatic scriptures and drawings – well thirty years ahead of the Surrealists. All these aspects are well documented in the Notebooks.
At the age of 43, Hilma af Klint received the task to paint the “Paintings for the Temple” by the spirit Amaliel. “Amaliel offered me a work and I answered immediately Yes. This was the large work, that I was to perform in my life”, Hilma af Klint wrote in the Notebook HaK 555 (p. 8). After preparations, Hilma af Klint painted 111 paintings during the period November 1906-April 1908 – i.e. one painting every fifth day. In July 1908, Hilma af Klint met for the first time with Rudolf Steiner – then the leader of the Theosophical movement in Germany. Rudolf Steiner did not understand the message of the paintings, but advised her not to show them for fifty years.
During the ensuing four year period Hilma af Klint studied western philosophies, as well as Mme Blavatsky´s “The Secret Doctrine”. During 1912-1915 Hilma af Klint completed the “Paintings for the Temple”, which constitute 193 paintings all in all. By using the concept of “duality”, Hilma af Klint illustrated in the paintings that everything is “Non-dual” (i.e. that Microcosmos equals Macrocosmos).
Hilma af Klint believed that everything has a physical body, as well as a spiritual one, both equally natural and real. With this in mind, she analyzed during the period 1916-1920 the world around her – living matters, material matters, as well as organizations. Some of these works feature a small diagram, indicating on which spiritual level the analyzed item belongs.
During 1921 Hilma af Klint did not paint a single painting, but studied Goethe’s “Colour Theory”, which Rudolf Steiner had edited. In 1922 she assumed painting, this time in watercolors with „floating colors“ (wet-in-wet), a technique inspired by anthroposophical art. However, she developed her own style by the use of black colour, a colour proscribed in the anthroposophical art theory. She pursued in this style until her last painting in 1941.
Hilma af Klint became a member of the Anthroposophical Society in 1920 and studied anthroposophy primarily from 1922. As a painter, Hilma af Klint was an innovator – a creator – staking out her own path, both in ideas and in artistic expressions. She remained prone for new means of expression and tried new techniques through her entire life. She had shifted from conventional art to abstraction quite suddenly, entirely independently from the abstract art theories developed by her male colleagues on the continent. Quite unusually for a painter, she radically changed her way of painting several times. Starting off as a conventional landscape and portrait painter, she changed over to abstract painting in 1906. In 1922, she started to paint in “floating colours”, which lasted until 1941.
Her art was created under unusually strong inspirations – some claim it had been mediumistic. Her work was designed to convey transcendental messages to humanity. But her paintings were ahead of the conventional taste of the time, and she doubted that her contemporaries would understand them. The work would have to wait. She instructed that the paintings should not be shown to the public for twenty years after her death.
It would take 40 years until her art was first exhibited to the public, with the exhibition „The Spiritual in Art – Abstract Paintings 1890-1985“ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986. Her international breakthrough was immediate and since then, her work has been exhibited in museums around Europe, the United States and Latin America.
Hilma af Klint left more than 1200 non-figurative paintings and 124 notebooks behind. Today they are owned and managed by the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
The exhibition „World Receivers. Georgiana Houghton—Hilma af Klint—Emma Kunz“ which opens in November 2018 will offer further insight into the work of Hilma af Klint and an extraordinary and largely obscure episode in the history of modernism.
Johan af Klint is the great-nephew of Hilma af Klint and member of the board of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hedvig Ersman is a member of the foundation’s board as well and head of Press and Communication.