Hilma af Klint lived from 1862 to 1944. Her life’s longevity gave her a crucial insight into novel ways of viewing art. When young at her parent’s country home Hilma’s contact with nature led to her becoming deeply impressed by its natural progress. From her father it is said that she learnt to think mathematically. Both these qualities show in her art.
She became widely recognised as a pioneer of abstraction. She did not want her art to be shown for several years after her death, still feeling in 1944 that her contemporaries were not ready to understand her painting. Seventy-six years later the question still remains, do we yet understand?
As early as 1906 her abstract imagery was prior to the works of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and František Kupka, who are seen collectively as the forerunners of twentieth century abstract art.
In 2013 three museums, Moderna Museet,(1) Stockholm, Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum, Berlin, and Museo Picasso, Málaga, collaborated to show her ground-breaking works to a wide international public.
She became recognised as the first known artist to introduce abstract art globally, her art thus altered what the public saw in a painting and how this view relates to everyday life.
In 1880 she lost her sister and this extended her interest to clairvoyants and those who practiced spiritual mediumism. Occult attitudes varied from those of today. Just as Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays made it possible to recognise hidden structures below a visual surface, and Heinrich Hertz similarly proved the existence of electromagnetic waves beyond the limitation of human vision. All these discoveries led to Hilma’s art becoming something more than a simple realistic concept.
We must remember in the mid-19th century imitative art had long been considered a unique aspect of human intelligence in opposition to abstract art. Realistic art put people above all other less developed forms of life, from other animals generally to the most minute one cell creatures. When humans created realistic drawings that were representational, there was a wider public that related to them as people’s unique form of intelligence, setting humanity above all other forms of life in the animal kingdom.
For the general European public new scientific insights from the 1860’s presented many views considering human-being’s mental ability as complex. Tied to art was a kind of occult spirituality, that when classically considered was often rather earthly and financial.
Many western historical views of art are inherited from as far back as Attica in 500 BCE. At least by the original natives of ancient Greece, the Pelasgians. The Pelasgians regarded the later incomers tribal painting’s destructive motives of focusing away from more egalitarian qualities of democracy. Robert Flaceliere’s book Daily Life in Athens gives a studied vision of these thorny conditions. The circumstances are covered by Herodotus The Histories and Hesiod’s Theogony.
The ancient Greeks is a lengthy debate of its own, not to be further discussed here.
The object of naming the Pelasgians, recognises that the rebirth of abstract art has a substantial history and value of its own, that varied throughout historical records.
During the Renaissance, when once again the fundamental views of art were realistic and imitational a rebound towards religious abstract painting occurred.
Closer to our times serious art can be seen as the product of the masculine gender. The feminine gender was insinuated as created by ‘pretty beings.’ Ideas seldom expressed in so many words, but endlessly implied by those humans who saw themselves as representing the period’s human advancement and often expressed in hostile visual terms.
From the roots of her art, Hilma af Klint challenges many of these accepted cultural ideas.
Her training began at the Technical School (todays Konstfack). She then studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm from 1882 to 1887. Recognised as a talented student she was given a studio at Hamngatan 5, where she worked and earned her living until 1908, often with four female companions.
From the time of her training Hilma af Klint was recognised as a talented and extremely advanced thinker of her times. Her early paintings as well as her ‘botanical watercolour studies’ reveal a ‘gift for precise observation.’ During the 1880’s her accepted belief was that nature’s perfection needed no alteration or improvement.
She is an artist of deep integrity. Hilma’s art was in a continuous state of research and development. “Her open mindedness, coupled to her curiosity, runs like a golden thread throughout her entire oeuvre, which was committed to the struggle for knowledge and understanding of greater contexts” is how she is described in the 2013 exhibition program. Here lay the artist’s integrity towards her work.
That many of Hilma’s paintings remained unknown, was not, as has been suggested, due to her physical artistic isolation. Her studio was in the thick of the artistic district in Stockholm, and she must have been well aware of the art and basic artistic attitudes of her times. Her studio was in close proximity to where Edvard Munch exhibited his Frieze of Life, which could have included ‘The Scream;’ exhibited in Stockholm sometime after 1802 (no exact date is available).
Hilma joins with four other women and creates a series of studies she calls ‘The Five’, the names of the artists take second place, it is the concept that counts.
Just over a decade later she completes the commission for The Painting of the Temple, ‘never to return to figurative painting’. Her art culminates at this time in a wish ‘to reach the white light at the end of the artistic tunnel’.(2) An abstract artistic vision beyond what many see or accept.
In 1908 Hilma meets Rudolf Steiner and shows him her work. He is general secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany. She reads Steiner’s book about the Rosicrucians depicting esoteric Christianity.(3)
One result was that between 1912 and 1915 she produces eighty-two works that are ‘mainly geometrical in character’. In the program to the 2013 exhibition af Kint discusses the period’s approach to art. At the time a general contemporary idea was that research and artistry have a scientific connection. The notion of there being such a connection is easier to understand if aware Mendeleev’s Periodic Table was scientifically accepted. In 1906 his name was considered for the Nobel Prize, which brought a wider public consciousness to Sweden, and raised the question of art versus science.
In very simple terms, the Periodic Table sets out a list of chemical elements according to the number of electrons contained in each element and their atomic weight. These elements then fall into regular groups with similar chemical properties, which altogether constitute all materials known to us on earth.
In the early 20th century Hilma has a sense her times lack a basic scientific understanding, of the material world that her oeuvre reaches out to find visually, and that Steiner also fails to recognise this quality in her art.
Painting in a trance like state, renews the experience for her, increasing the value. She is invigorated producing 111 paintings, and four years later another 82. The latter is when Hilma feels free to use her own interpretation to what she paints. The opposition seems to have acted as a stimulation.
This artist is intent on attaining a visual liberation. Hilma’s work thus embodies her own belief about her art, that are concerned with the connection between the universe and humankind.
In her sixties Hilma again came under Steiner’s influence, travelling to Dornach to listen to his lectures. She still seeks his acceptance for her achievements, failing to recognise that he is foremost committed to male achievements.
Nevertheless, regardless of Steiner, she compounds in her artistic representation a view of humankind in abstract terms, as a consistent intuitive vision.
The 2013 program claims, her painting represent the essence of what she has handed down to us. ‘They are powerful, strange and radical.’ As František Kupka has said “Great art makes a visible, tangible reality out of the invisible and intangible”.
Hilma was convinced of the value of her output at this intangible level!
Her inborn sense of visual construction and colour combinations leave an inspiring artistic impression, regardless of others more critical view, awakened by her singular belief in her own artistic prowess.
1 Moderna Museet, Skeppsholmen, Stockholm
2 The quotations are taken from the original program 16/02/ 2013
3 The Protestant theologian Cramer in 1617 introduces a Rosicrucian process of experiences. One year after the appearance of Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.