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The First Abstract Works Known In Western Art History: Hilma Af Klint

Hilma af Klint (26 October 1862 – 21 October 1944) was a Swedish artist and mystic whose paintings are considered to be among the first abstract works known in Western art history. Much of her work predates Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian's first purely abstract compositions. She belonged to "The Five," a circle of women inspired by Theosophy who shared a belief in the importance of attempting to contact the so-called "High Masters"—often through séances. Her paintings, which looked like diagrams at times, were a visual representation of complex spiritual ideas.

The Early Years Of Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint was the fourth child of Mathilda af Klint (née Sonntag) and Captain Victor af Klint, a Swedish naval commander, and spent her summers with her family on the island of Adelsö in Lake Mälaren. In these idyllic surroundings, she came into contact with nature at a young age, and a strong connection with natural forms would inspire her work. Hilma af Klint later settled permanently on Munsö, an island adjacent to Adelsö.

Hilma af Klint inherited a strong interest in mathematics and botany from her family. She exhibited early talent in visual art, and after her family relocated to Stockholm, she studied at Tekniska skolan (now Konstfack), where she learned portraiture and landscape painting.

At the age of twenty, she was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She primarily studied drawing, portrait painting, and landscape painting between 1882 and 1887. She graduated with honors and was given a studio in the "Atelier Building" (Ateljébyggnaden), which is owned by The Academy of Fine Arts and located in central Stockholm between Hamngatan and Kungsträdgrden. At the time, this was the main cultural hub in the Swedish capital.

The same building also held Blanch's Café and Blanch's Art Gallery, where conflict existed between the conventional art view of the Academy of Fine Arts and the opposition movement of the Art Society (Konstnärsförbundet), inspired by the French En Plein Air painters. Hilma af Klint began her career in Stockholm, where she became known for her landscapes, botanical drawings, and portraits. Her conventional painting became a source of income, but her "life's work" remained a distinct practice.

Hilma af Klint Abstract Art intellectual and spiritual concepts

Her younger sister Hermina died in 1880, and it was at this point that the spiritual dimension of her life began to emerge. Hilma af Klint's interest in abstraction and symbolism stemmed from her involvement in spiritism, which was popular at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Her experiments in spiritual research began in 1879. She became interested in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy and Christian Rosencreutz's philosophy. She met him, in Stockholm in 1908. Steiner introduced her to his own theories about the arts, which would later influence her paintings.

She ran into him again several years later, in 1920, at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society. She spent a lot of time at the Goetheanum between 1921 and 1930. The work of Af Klint can be understood in the context of the Modernist search for new forms in artistic, spiritual, political, and scientific systems at the turn of the twentieth century. Other artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevitch, and the French Nabis, had a similar interest in spirituality during this time period, and many, like af Klint, were inspired by the Theosophical Movement.

Hilma af Klint's works are primarily spiritual, and her artistic work reflects this. She believed the abstract work and its meaning were so revolutionary that the world was not ready to see it, and she wished for the work to go unnoticed for 20 years after her death.

Hilma af Klint's Works

She met Anna Cassel at the Academy of Fine Arts, the first of four women with whom she later collaborated in "The Five" (De Fem), a group of artists who shared her ideas. Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson were the other members. "The Five" met as members of the Edelweiss Society, which promoted a blend of Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical teachings and spiritualism. The Five were all interested in the paranormal and held spiritistic séances on a regular basis. Each meeting began with a prayer, then a meditation, a Christian sermon, and a review and analysis of a New Testament text. A séance would then take place.

They documented a completely new system of mystical thought in the form of messages from higher spirits known as The High Masters ("Höga Mästare") in a book. "All 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," declared one, Gregor.

Hilma af Klint developed an inventive geometric visual language capable of conceptualizing invisible forces from both the inner and outer worlds through. She investigated world religions, atoms, and the plant world, and she wrote extensively about her findings. Hilma af Klint was assigned by the High Masters to create paintings for the "Temple" as she became more familiar with this form of expression, but she never understood what this "Temple" referred to.

Hilma af Klint had the impression that she was being guided by a force that would literally guide her hand. She scribbled in her notebook:

The paintings were created directly through me, without any preliminary sketches, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to represent, but I worked quickly and steadily, not changing a single brush stroke.

Hilma af Klint painted her first series of abstract paintings in 1906, after 20 years of artistic work and at the age of 44.

Svanen (The Swan), No. 17, Group 9, Series SUW, October 1914 - March 1915, a work that was never shown during af Klint's lifetime.

The Temple's works were completed between 1906 and 1915, in two phases with a break between 1908 and 1912. Hilma af Klint created a new artistic language as she discovered her new form of visual expression. Her painting became more self-contained and deliberate. Throughout the rest of her life, the spiritual would be her primary source of inspiration.

The Temple collection consists of 193 paintings organized into several sub-series. The major paintings, which date from 1907, are extremely large, measuring approximately 240 x 320 cm each. This series, titled The Ten Largest, depicts various stages of life, from childhood to old age.

Aside from their diagrammatic function, the paintings have a contemporary aesthetic of tentative line and hastily captured image: a segmented circle, a helix bisected and divided into a spectrum of lightly painted colors. Hilma af Klint's artistic world is infused with symbols, letters, and words. Up and down, in and out, earthly and esoteric, male and female, good and evil are all symmetrical dualities or reciprocities depicted in the paintings. The color scheme is metaphorical throughout: blue represents the female spirit, yellow represents the male spirit, and pink / red represents physical / spiritual love. The Swan and the Dove, the names of two series of Paintings for the Temple, are also symbolic, representing transcendence and love, respectively. Her paintings, interpreted as portals to other dimensions, invite interpretation on a narrative, esoteric, and artistic level, while evoking primordial geometry and humanistic motifs.

The spiritual guidance ended when Hilma af Klint finished the Temple's construction. She did, however, continue to paint abstractly, now free of outside influences. The paintings for the Temple were mostly oil paintings, but she was now using water colours as well. Her later paintings are much smaller in size. She painted a series depicting the viewpoints of various religions at various points in history, as well as representations of the duality between the physical being and its esoteric equivalence. As Hilma af Klint pursued her artistic and esoteric research, it is possible to detect a certain inspiration from the Anthroposophical Society's artistic theories developed from 1920 onwards.

Throughout her life, Hilma af Klint sought to unravel the mysteries she had encountered through her work. She filled more than 150 notebooks with her ideas and research.

The first time af Klint met Rudolf Steiner was in 1908. In one of the few remaining letters, she invited Steiner to come to Stockholm and see the completed part of the Paintings for the Temple series, which totaled 111 paintings. Steiner saw the paintings but was unimpressed, claiming that her method of working was inappropriate for a theosophist. According to H.P. Blavatsky, mediumship was a flawed practice that led its practitioners down the path of occultism and black magic. During their meeting, however, Steiner stated that af Klint's contemporaries would be unable to accept and comprehend his paintings, and that it would take another 50 years to decipher them. Only the Primordial Chaos Group received special attention from Steiner, who described them as "the best symbolically" of all the paintings shown to him. After meeting Steiner, af Klint was apparently devastated by his response and stopped painting for four years. Surprisingly, Steiner kept photographs of some of af Klint's works, some of which were hand-colored. Later that year, he met Wassily Kandinsky, who had yet to embrace abstract painting. During their meeting, Steiner stated that af Klint's contemporaries would be unable to accept and comprehend his paintings, and that deciphering them would take another 50 years. Only the Primordial Chaos Group drew Steiner's attention, describing them as "the best symbolically" of all the paintings shown to him. Af Klint was apparently devastated by Steiner's response and stopped painting for four years after meeting him. Surprisingly, Steiner preserved photographs of af Klint's works, some of which were hand-colored. Later that year, he met Wassily Kandinsky, who had not yet discovered abstract painting.

Despite popular belief that Hilma af Klint chose not to exhibit her abstract works during her lifetime, art historians such as Julia Voss have recently discovered sufficient evidence of af Klint making an actual effort to show her art to the public. Around 1920, af Klint met Dutch eurythmist Peggy Kloppers-Moltzer, who was also a member of The Anthroposophical Society, in Dornach, Switzerland. Later, the artist and Kloppers traveled to Amsterdam, where they discussed the potential exhibition with the editors of the art and architecture magazine Wendingen. Despite the fact that the Amsterdam talks produced no results, at least one exhibition of Hilma af Klint's abstract works did take place in London several years later. The World Conference on Spiritual Science was held in London in July 1928, and Kloppers was a member of the organizing committee. Hilma af Klint was initially excluded from the circle of participants, but after Kloppers' persistence, the matter was resolved.

Hilma af Klint sails from Stockholm to London with some of her large-scale paintings in July 1928. af Klint writes in her postcard to Anna Cassel (discovered only in 2018) that she was not alone on this four-day trip. Despite af Klint's lack of a name, Julia Voss believes her companion was most likely Thomasine Andersson, an old friend from De Fem days. Voss also stated that, despite the fact that the list of paintings presented was unknown, we can assume that they were from the Paintings for the Temple series.

Hilma af Klint died in 1944, nearly 82 years old, in the aftermath of a traffic accident in Djursholm, Sweden, having only exhibited her works a handful of times, primarily at spiritual conferences and gatherings. She was laid to rest at Galärvarvskyrkogrden in Stockholm.

Signature style of Hilma af Klint

Later periods of Hilma Af Klint's abstract art (1906-1920) delved into symbolism through a combination of geometry, figuration, scientific research, and religious practices. Her studies of organic growth, such as shells and flowers, assisted her in depicting life through a spiritual lens.

Her individual or signature style was also influenced by contemporary spiritual movements such as theosophy and anthrosophy, as well as scientific discoveries from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her abstract paintings demonstrate her desire to transcend the physical world and the constraints of representational art. Her symbolic visual language follows an order that reflects her understanding of grids, circles, spirals, and petal-like forms—at times diagrammatic, at times biomorphic. Her paintings also explored the world's dichotomy.

Spiral forms appear frequently in her work, as they do in De Fem's automatic drawings. While every such geometric form, in this case, Spiral, implies growth, progress, and evolution, the color choices are also metaphorical in nature.

Her style, as one of the Proto-Feminist Artists, represents the sublime in art.

The Legacy Of Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint left all of her abstract paintings to her nephew, vice-admiral Erik af Klint of the Royal Swedish Navy, in her will. She requested that her work be kept private for at least 20 years after her death. When the boxes were opened at the end of the 1960s, few people knew what would be revealed.

Her paintings were offered as a gift to Moderna Museet I Stockholm in 1970, but the donation was turned down. In the 1970s, Erik af Klint donated thousands of drawings and paintings to a foundation bearing his name. Her art was introduced to an international audience in the 1980s thanks to art historian ke Fant, who presented her at a Nordik conference in Helsinki in 1984.

Hilma af Klint's abstract painting collection contains over 1200 pieces. The Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden owns and manages it. Snhetta, a Norwegian architectural firm, proposed plans for an exhibition center dedicated to af Klint in Järna, south of Stockholm, with estimated construction costs of €6 to 7.5 million in 2017. In February 2018, the Foundation signed a long-term cooperation agreement with the Moderna Museet, confirming the permanence of the Hilma af Klint Room. a dedicated space at the museum where a dozen of the artist's works are displayed on a continuous basis.

Movies & Books about Hilma af Klint

  • Hilma af Klint and her work are presented in the movie Personal Shopper, in which the main character, played by Kristen Stewart, researches art that is inspired by spirits.

  • The work of Hilma af Klint is cited by Jane Weaver as inspiration for Modern Kosmology.

  • Af Klint was the subject of a 2019 feature-length documentary by German director Halina Dyrschka, titled Beyond the Visible — Hilma af Klint.

  • Af Klint's work is presented in the 2020 short film Point and Line to Plane, written and directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz. The short features the Solomon R.

  • Guggenheim Museum's 2018 exhibition Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future, which is seen in mid-installation.

Hilma af Klint Exhibitions

In 1986, Maurice Tuchman organized the exhibition "The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985" in Los Angeles, which featured Hilma af Klint's abstract work for the first time. This exhibition marked the beginning of her international recognition.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's exhibition "Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future" was the most-visited exhibition in the museum's 60-year history. Over 600,000 people attended the show.

Selected exhibitions Hilma af Klint

  • The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA. 23 November 1986 – 8 March 1987.

  • Travelling exhibition : Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA. 17 April – 19 July 1987; Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Netherlands. 1 September – 22 November 1987

  • Hilma af Klints hemliga bilder, Nordic Art Association, Sveaborg Helsinki, Finland 1988–1989

  • The Secret Pictures by Hilma af Klint, MoMA PS1, Queens, New York. 15 January – 12 March 1989

  • Ockult målarinna och abstrakt pionjär, Moderna Museet i Stockholm, Sweden 1989–1991.

  • Travelling exhibition : Göteborgs Konsthall, Gothenburg, Sweden; Lunds Konsthall, Lund, Sweden; Fyns Kunstmuseum, Denmark.

  • Okkultismus und Abstraktion, Die Malerin Hilma af Klint, Albertina, Vienna, Austria 1991–1992. Travelling exhibition : Kunsthaus Graz, Austria; Modern Museum of Passau, Germany

  • Målningarna till templet (The paintings to the Temple), Liljevalchs konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden 1999–2000

  • 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing, The Drawing Center, New York, USA 2005–2006;[42] Santa Monica Museum of Art, USA; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland 2005–2006

  • An Atom in the Universe, Camden Arts Centre, UK 2006

  • The Alpine Cathedral and The City-Crown, Josiah McElheny. Moderna Museet i Stockholm, Sweden. 1 December 2007 – 31 March 2008 (represented by 14 paintings)

  • The Message. The Medium as artist – Das Medium als Künstler Museum in Bochum, Germany. 16 February – 13 April 2008 (represented by 4 paintings)

  • Traces du Sacré Centre Pompidou, Paris, France. 7 May – 11 August 2008. (represented by 7 paintings)

  • Hilma af Klint – Une modernité rélévée Centre Culturel Suédois, Paris, France. April – August 2008 (represented by 59 paintings)

  • Traces du Sacré Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany. 18 September 2008 – 11 January 2009

  • De geheime schilderijen van Hilma af Klint, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, Netherlands. 7 March 2010 – 30 May 2010

  • Beyond Colour, See! Colour! – Four exhibitions at the Cultural Center in Järna, South of Stockholm, Sweden. James Turrell, Rudolf Steiner, 14 May – Oktober 2, 2011

  • Hilma af Klint – a Pioneer of Abstraction was produced by and showed at Moderna Museet i Stockholm, Sweden, from 16 February until 26 May 2013, before touring to Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, Germany, from 15 June to 6 October;

  • Museo Picasso Málaga, Spain, from 21 October 2013 to 9 February 2014;[

  • Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebaek, Copenhaguen, Denmark 2014; Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo, Norway 2015; Kumu, Tallinn, Estonia 2015

  • Works by af Klint was exhibited at the Central Pavilion of the 55th Venice Biennale, Italy. 1 June – 24 November 2013.

  • Cosa mentale – Imaginaries of Telepathy of the 20th-Century Art, Centre Pompidou, Metz, France. 28 October 2015 – 28 March 2016 (9 paintings)

  • Painting the Unseen, Serpentine Galleries, London, UK. 3 March – 15 May 2016

  • The Keeper, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, USA 20 July – 2 October 2016

  • Beyond Stars – The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. 14 March – 25 June 2017 (1 painting)

  • Jardin infini. De Giverny à l'Amazonie, Centre Pompidou, Metz, France. 18 March – 28 August 2017 (7 paintings)

  • L'emozione dei COLORI nell'arte, Galleria civica d'arte moderna e contemporanea GAM of Turin, Italy. 14 March – 23 July 2017

  • As Above, So Below, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland. 13 April – 27 August 2017

  • Intuition, Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Italy. 13 May – 26 November 2017

  • Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA), Göteborgs Konsthall in Gothenburg, Sweden. 9 September – 19 November 2017

  • Hilma af Klint, Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil. 3 March – 16 July 2018

  • Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, USA. 12 October 2018 – 23 April 2019

  • Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 12 June – 19 September 2021

  • Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, City Gallery Wellington, 4 December 2021 – 27 March 2022

Hilma af Klint Publications

  • HILMA AF KLINT: Catalogue Raisonné, Bokförlaget Stolpe,Vol. I - VII, December 27, 2022, ISBN 919852366X

  • The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985, publ. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986. ISBN 0-89659-669-9, 0-87587130-5 LACMA : pbk

  • (in Swedish) Hilma af Klint, Raster Förlag, Stockholm. Swedish text, about 100 pictures. ISBN 91-87214-08-3

  • (in Swedish) Vägen till templet, Rosengårdens Förlag. Swedish text, 30 sketches. Describes the teaching period to become a medium. ISBN 91-972883-0-6

  • (in Swedish) Enheten bortom mångfalden, Rosengårdens Förlag. Swedish text, 32 pictures. Two parts, one philosophical and one art-scientific. ISBN 91-972883-4-9

  • I describe the way and meanwhile I am proceeding along it, Rosengårdens Förlag. A short introduction in English with 3 pictures. ISBN 91-972883-2-2

  • 3 X Abstraction, Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher (eds.), Yale University Press and The Drawing Center, New York, 2005 ISBN 978-0300108262, 0300108265

  • (in German) Okkultismus und Abstraktion, die Malerin Hilma af Klint, Åke Fant, Albertina, Wien 1992, ISBN 3-900656-17-7.

  • (in Danish) Mod Lyset – Belyj, Goethe, Hilma af Klint, Jeichau, Kandinsky, Martinus, Rosenkrantz, Steiner Gl. Holtegaard & Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum. 2004. ISBN 87-884995-2-9

  • Hilma af Klint, the Greatness of Things, John Hutchinson (ed.), Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin 2005. English text, 23 images. ISBN 0-907660-99-1.

  • The Message. Art and Occultism. With an Essay by André Breton. Hrsg. v. Claudia Dichter, Hans Günter Golinski, Michael Krajewski, Susanne Zander. Kunstmuseum Bochum. Walther König: Köln 2007, ISBN 978-3-86560-342-5.

  • Swedish Women Artists: Sigrid Hjertén, Hilma af Klint, Nathalie Djurberg, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, Aleksandra Mir, Ulrika Pasch, Books LCC, 2010. ISBN 978-1155646084

  • The Legacy of Hilma af Klint: Nine Contemporary Responses (English / German), Ann-Sofi Norin, Daniel Birnbaum, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2013. ASIN B00FOT4GAM

  • Hilma af Klint. The Art of Seeing the Invisible, by Kurt Belfrage, Louise Almqvist (eds.), 2015 ASIN B01K3I9A1S

  • Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction, edited by Iris Müller-Westermann with Jo Widoff, with contributions by David Lomas, Pascal Rousseau and Helmut Zander, exhibition catalogue of Moderna Museet nr. 375, 2013. ISBN 978-91-8624-348-7

  • Hilma af Klint – Painting the Unseen, edited by Daniel Birnbaum and Emma Enderby, with contributions by Julia Peyton-Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jennifer Higgie and Julia Voss. Serpentine Galleries / Koenig Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-908617-34-7

  • (in Swedish) Hilma – en roman om gåtan Hilma af Klint [Hilma – a novel about the enigma Hilma af Klint], Anna Laestadius Larsson, ed. Piratförlaget, 24 May 2017 ISBN 978-91-642-0489-9

  • Hilma af Klint – Seeing is Believing, Kurt Almqvist and Louise Belfrage, König Books, 7 October 2017 ISBN 9783960981183

  • (in French) Ni vues, Ni connues pp. 42–44, Collectif Georgette Sand, Publisher Hugo Doc collection Les Simone, 5 October 2017 ISBN 9782755635393

  • Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods, with an introduction and commentary by Iris Müller-Westerman, University of Chicago Press, 2018 ISBN 978-0-226-59193-3


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  63. ^ Mitsuji, T., "Hilma af Klint’s ‘miraculous’ art: ‘In dialogue with spirits, she found her own voice’", The Guardian, 15 June 2021.

  64. ^ "Hilma af Klint: The Secret Painting | City Gallery Wellington".

  65. ^ Chumko, A. (30 March 2021). Hilma af Klint to be shown in New Zealand for first time. Stuff.Co.Nz. Retrieved 12 July 2022, from

  66. ^ Chumko, A. (9 April 2022). Thousands visit Hilma af Klint exhibition during its four months at Wellington gallery. Stuff.Co.Nz. Retrieved 12 July 2022, from

External links Hilma af Klint

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