Hilma af Klint Made the Invisible… Visible
Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was a mystic, amateur scientist, and artist from Sweden. She painted more than 1200 paintings, sketches, and watercolors, ranging from veterinary drawings and botanical sketches to huge oil paintings that were inspired by her interest in world religions. While painting, she channelled spiritual guidance to showcase a cosmic view of the universe and its subatomic parts. She was knowledgable about scientific discoveries of her time including quantum mechanics, electromagnetic waves, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, and sought to understand these theories in an artistic and spiritual way.
An artist who was way ahead of her time, af Klint was the first major Western artist to paint abstract art. Some of her male contemporaries, abstract artists Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and others, are much better known, but her work predates their earliest abstract art. Some of her paintings look like Kandinsky or Klee paintings, including her Group IX/SUW, No. 17, The Swan. Between 1914 and 1915, she painted 24 swan paintings. By the time she painted No. 17, she had completely abstracted the swan into pure colors and shapes.
Hilma af Klint was born into a prominent aristocratic Swedish family in 1862, the fourth of five children. Her father was an admiral and mathematician. Her ancestors were famous for having drawn “The Sea Maps of Sweden” and for calculating marine navigation tables. The family lived in Karlberg Palace in Stockholm, the naval academy where her father was based, until Hilma was 10. At the palace, Hilma studied science, math, art, and other topics. During the summer, the family lived on an island in Lake Mälaren where Hilma’s fascination with nature began.
In her teenage years, Hilma studied art at the Technical School, which is now known as Konstfack, practicing classical portraiture. During this time, she became interested in mysticism. These interests grew following the death of her ten year old sister, Hermina, when af Klint was just eighteen years old. Around this time she first began attending séances, mystical group meetings that aimed to create a dialogue with the spirit world.
In 1882, when she was twenty, she was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she studied for five years, continuing her classical art training. After graduating with honors, she was awarded a scholarship in the form of an art studio in Stockholm’s artist quarter. With this scholarship and her hard work, she was able to become financially independent by painting landscapes and portraits.
In 1896, af Klint started meeting regularly with four other women artists to pursue occult practices and to practice free-flowing writing and drawing. They called themselves “The Five” and prayed together and held séances in an attempt to communicate with other worlds. They acted as mediums, and while in a trance, experienced communication with sprits. They kept careful minutes of the séances in a process known as automatic writing or psychography. The automatic pencil drawings of af Klint from this time include motifs that would occur in her later work. Throughout her life, her paintings were a visual representation of her complex spiritual ideas that she first developed with her women friends.
Paintings for the Temple
In 1904, af Klint was profoundly changed by an otherworldly experience. During a séance, she heard a voice telling her to make paintings “on an astral plane” in order to “proclaim a new philosophy of life.” With the guidance of the spirit Amaliel, whom she had first heard in 1904, she painted 26 paintings in 1906, starting a major project that she called Paintings for the Temple. This work, which ended in 1915, resulted in 193 powerful paintings, subdivided into series and groups.
For the center of the temple, she painted a set of three boldly-colored altarpieces that were meant to be displayed together. The artworks in this series are numbered in the order she envisioned them being displayed. In the first one, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, there is a golden sunlike circle above an equilateral triangle with its apex facing upwards. The triangle is divided into seven pillars in the colors of the electromagnetic spectrum, with the center pillar having gold circles in it. The altar depicts a sort of pyramid and evokes a sense of rising. She used metallic leaf in the altarpieces to express their importance. The paintings are spiritual, but don’t include any traditional religious motifs.
Her Group IV paintings in the Paintings for the Temple project depict the evolution of human consciousness from youth to old age. The first one, Childhood, depicts a sunny, vibrant day. Three rings of dusty pink and yellow flowers drift through a rich blue background. The piece is almost psychedelic in nature and feels purely joyful.
Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth has vibrant spiritual and botanical themes. The circular and fluid geometries in the painting are similar to those in the other paintings of this series. The abstract flower in the middle says Ave Maria between the flower petals.
Her Adulthood painting from Group IV depicts organic and botanical forms and creatures, highlighting the idea that adults have more responsibilities than children and are often the gardeners or farmers in a family. The paintings in the Group IV series have both representational elements and also exist in the fantastical realm. Hilma af Klint wrote that this series of paintings was commissioned by a higher power and was intended to give the world a glimpse of the system of life.
Interest in Science and Religion
Hilma af Klint was ahead of her time in many ways. She was a vegetarian and once wrote on one of her paintings, “Choose appropriate food.” She had a strong interest in animals and plants. She worked as a draughtsman for a veterinary institute in 1900. She also studied the work of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. She believed in the theory of evolution, which many of her contemporaries did not, and painted and wrote about it her whole life.
Group VI, Evolution, No. 15, is a work from The Evolution series of 1908. The series features symbolic imagery inspired by science and Christian iconography.
Both the natural visible world and the invisible world interested af Klint. She studied scientific discoveries of the day that were revealing things like electromagnetic waves and subatomic particles. Her paintings show waves and spirals and particles in colorful geometric patterns.
Although she couldn’t possibly have known about the double-helix structure of DNA, in 1915 she envisioned a double helix for her Group IX The Dove, No. 1 painting. She would have encountered helixes (spirals) in the natural world as well as in mathematics, but it’s astonishing to think that she foreshadowed a double helix long before the discovery of the structure of DNA by scientists Franklin, Watson, Crick and Wilkins in 1953.
Group IX/UW No. 25, The Dove, No. 1 is one of fourteen oil paintings in her Dove series. It has both scientific and spiritual meaning. As do many of her works, it draws on Christian imagery. A dove is found in the Old Testament of The Bible in Noah’s Ark story and in the New Testament as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The use of a dove as a symbol of peace originated with the early Christians, who portrayed the act of baptism accompanied by a dove holding an olive branch in its beak.
Her Admiration for Rudolf Steiner
Hilma was a great admirer of the philosopher and spiritualist Rudolf Steiner, leader of the German Theosophical Society, but the admiration was not reciprocated. In 1908, Steiner held several lectures in Stockholm. He visited af Klint’s studio and saw some of her early Paintings for the Temple. He disapproved of her claim to be working as a spiritual medium and discouraged her from showing her work, saying that the world wouldn’t be ready for them for 50 years. He did take photos of some of the work though. The 2019 Beyond the Visible film suggests that Steiner may have shown the photos to Wassily Kandinsky who would go on to paint similar abstract paintings, although there’s no proof that this happened.
After Steiner visited, af Klint paused her work on the Paintings of the Temple. Steiner’s lack of support may have disillusioned her, though the pause is also related to family obligations. Her mother had become blind and af Klint gave up her studio at Hamngatan and moved to a studio in a building in Stockholm to be near her mother.
Despite Steiner’s discouragement, af Klint resumed work on the temple series in 1912 with augmented vigor. Steiner couldn’t understand her work because he had never seen anything like it before. But she courageously persevered, bravely creating awe-inspiring, colorful, abstract visions of an invisible world. She referred to this intensely creative period and process as being guided by a “force,” driven by a “higher power” in a sort of “divine dictation.”
The artist took Steiner’s advice not to talk about her spirituality and maintained a public persona of being a landscape artist. She maintained an air of conventionality and in 1914 exhibited one of her traditional landscape paintings at the Baltic exhibition in Malmö, Sweden, the same exhibition where Kandinsky showed five recently-painted early abstract works. At the height of her artistic experiments, af Klint kept her most significant work secret.
She completed the Paintings for the Temple in 1915, recording in her notebooks that her “divine guidance” had come to an end. During 1917 she wrote more than 1,200 pages entitled Studier över Själslivet (Studies of the Life of the Soul), detailing her experience as a metaphysical medium.
The “First” Abstract Painting
Despite her multiple talents, af Klint was not well-known in her time, although she was arguably the inventor of modern abstract art. Gaining professional fame in the art world requires a certain amount of self-promotion, which af Klint didn’t tend to do. On the other hand, self-promotion was something that Kandinsky, with whom she is often compared, was famous for. In 1935, Kandinsky wrote to a gallery in New York to ask for help promoting his work in the U.S. In the letter he asserted his claim that he created the first abstract painting in the history of art, a work he made in 1911. He wrote, “Indeed, it’s the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style. It’s an historic painting.” (Source: Faena Aleph, “What was the first abstract painting in history?”)
Even Kandinsky’s wife participated in the discussion. In 1946, soon after her husband’s death, Nina Andreevskaya defended his place as the original creator of abstract art. The dispute included other artists some of whom even changed the dates of their works to claim the coveted title. Among them were Robert Delaunay, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Kazimir Malevich.
However, the fact is that Hilma af Klint created abstract art in 1906 before any of these artists were working in the genre. In 1906, she began work on her first abstract series, the Primordial Chaos, which became part of her larger, primary body of work, Paintings for the Temple.
Hilma af Klint: The Later Years
In 1918, af Klint moved to villa Furuheim with her mother and her mother’s nurse and lived there until her mother’s death in 1920. Around this time, her oil paintings on canvas became smaller and she began to experiment with watercolor on paper.
After her mother’s death, she focused on studying religions and the scientific intricacies of flowers and trees, and moved to Helsingborg, a coastal city in Southern Sweden. Between 1921 and 1930, she studied anthroposophy and often visited the world center for the anthroposophy movement, the Goetheanum, in Dornach, Switzerland. There she met Rudolf Steiner again and became deeply immersed in his theories and ideas.
In 1927 she donated her fundamental studies of flowers, mosses, and lichen to the scientific library in Dornach. This collection was a major part of the esoteric system of nature that she had developed. The collection seems to have disappeared.
During her later years, af Klint became concerned with the legacy of her work. She started cataloguing and photographing her paintings, documenting her practice, writing in her journals and sketchbooks, and reviewing previous discoveries. Rudolf Steiner’s advice that she not let anybody see her paintings for the next 50 years may have been a contributing factor for af Klint’s decision, stated in her last will and testament, that her work could not be exhibited for 20 years after her death. She also specified that the paintings could not be sold separately. She left all her works to her nephew who preserved them and passed them onto his family.
Hilma died in 1944 at age 81 following a traffic accident. In 1930, she had made sketches for a circular building to house her paintings where viewers would take in her works as they ascended a spiral staircase to the heavens. She said the building should be on an island, surrounded by water, and imbued with a certain power and calm. In fact, years later, her art was exhibited on the island of Manhattan in a spiral building designed from 1943 to 1959 by Frank Lloyd Wright: the Guggenheim Museum.
Hilma af Klint was a pioneering artist who made the link between spirituality and abstract art visible. During her lifetime she wasn’t acclaimed, partly due to a lack of artistic mentors and influential sponsors which can be so important for professional success in an art career. She didn’t have the marketing skills of Kandinsky, and her complex ideas about mysticism, as well as her gender and her distance from the art world of Paris, made her an outsider. Nonetheless, she was a major contributor to the canon of abstract art.
Today, it no longer matters that she was underestimated in her time. Art historians now recognize her importance and are rewriting modern art history to place her where she belongs: one of the earliest and most innovative creators of abstract art.
The first major exhibition to show her work was in 1986, when Maurice Tuchman organized The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890–1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2018-2019, the Guggenheim Museum exhibited a major retrospective of her work called Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future. As of April 2019, 600,000 people had attended the exhibition, making it the most visited show in the history of the museum. The video about the show is informative and engaging. It showcases her gorgeous large-scale temple paintings.
In 2019, the terrific full-length movie Beyond the Visible, directed by filmmaker Halina Dyrschka, was released by Zeitgeist Films. It is available on DVD or for streaming. It is beautifully-made with interesting research about her life and work. A New York Times review says that the film “bristles with the excitement of discovery” and “refreshes the eyes and the mind.”
Hilma af Klint courageously persevered, though few understood her in her time, and carried out her mission to bond science, art, and spirituality into a higher human consciousness. Her vision to showcase a miraculous world filled with joyful spirals, colors, symmetries, and patterns has been fulfilled. As she wrote in one of her notebooks:
“Those granted the gift of seeing more deeply can see beyond form and concentrate on the wondrous aspect behind every form, which is called life.“