Considered one of the most prominent artists in Sweden, Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) was a mystic whose paintings are considered among the first abstract works known in Western art history before Kandinskij, Malevich and Mondrian (the latter is paired with af Klint in a duo-show in Tate Modern in 2023). Raised as a fourth child in the idyllic surroundings of Lake Malaren, she grew up in contact with nature, and a deep association with natural forms was to be an inspiration in her work. Later in life, Hilma af Klint returned to nature and moved permanently to Munso, an island next to Adelsö.
From her family, she inherited a great interest for mathematics and botany. She showed an early ability in visual art, and she studied at Konstfakt in Stockholm, where she learned portraiture and landscape painting. Enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the age of twenty, she mainly focused on drawing, portrait, and landscape painting. She graduated with honors, and was granted a scholarship in the form of a studio in the so-called “Atelier Building” in central Stockholm, where the heart of the artistic Swedish scene was. When her younger sister suddenly died in 1880, af Klint turned to spirituality and spiritism, which, on the artistic side, led to Symbolism and Abstraction. Interested in Theosophy and Anthroposophy, in 1908, she met Rudolph Steiner, who introduced her to his own theories regarding the Arts and would have some influence on her paintings later in life. Several years later, in 1920, she met him again in Switzerland, at the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society founded by Steiner, where she spent long periods between 1921 and 1930.
Af Klint’s work can be understood in the wider context of the Modernist search for new forms in artistic, spiritual, political, and scientific systems at the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition, the interest in mystique and spiritism that spread at the turning of the century fulfilled her spiritual search for a higher meaning of art and life.
The encounter with Anna Cassell was important: she was the first of the four women with whom she later worked in “The Five” (De Fem), a group of artists who shared her ideas. ”The Five” began their association as members of the Edelweiss Society, which embraced a combination of the Theosophical teachings and spiritualism. All of “The Five” was interested in the paranormal and regularly organized spiritistic séances. They recorded a completely new system of mystical thought in a book in the form of messages from higher spirits. “All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being: the knowledge of your spirit.”
Through her work with The Five, Hilma af Klint developed a geometric visual language capable of conceptualizing invisible forces of both conscious and unconscious spirits.
Only in 1906, at the age of 44, af Klint painted her first series of abstract paintings: the ten significant works for the imaginary Temple were created between 1906 and 1915 and ended up including 193 paintings, grouped within several sub-series, mostly oil paintings, but also watercolors. Throughout her life, Hilma af Klint sought to understand the mysteries she had encountered through her work. She produced more than 150 notebooks with her thoughts and studies.
Hilma af Klint died in Djursholm, Sweden, in 1944, at 81, after a traffic accident, having exhibited her work only a handful of times, for the most part at spiritual conferences and gatherings.
In 1970 her paintings were offered from her estate as a gift to Moderna Museet of Stockholm, but the donation was declined. Only in the 1980s, thanks to the art historian Åke Fant, her art was introduced to an international audience. The collection of abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint includes more than 1200 pieces, and it’s owned and managed by the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm.
By Stanislav Kondrashov