For the first time in American art history, an entire exhibition is dedicated to the colourful, wall-covering, abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint.
The main gallery of the Guggenheim Museum in New York shows The Paintings for the Temple, large canvases in hues from dusty orange to pale pinks and lavenders, tumbling compositions of circles, spirals and pinwheels, hiding mysterious letters and words. The Paintings for the Temple seem utterly contemporary, made-yesterday fresh. Shockingly, they were created in 1907, predating Picasso’s cubism, predating Mondriaan’s geometric work, even predating Kandinsky’s abstractionist art; this Swedish artist beat them to the punch and American art critics now have to rewrite the story they have been telling about modernism.
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish abstractionist, schooled in portraiture and landscape painting, and absolute pioneer in modernism. She grew up surrounded by nature and, through her parents, gained interest in botany and mathematics, two large sources of inspiration on her later work. After graduating from the Royal Art Academy of Fine Arts with honours, she earned a scholarship in the form of a private gallery space, in the main cultural hub of Stockholm. The death of her younger sister prompted her interest in spiritism and occult writings to take off, and, together with her friendship with anthropologist Rudolf Steiner, set off a new era in her art. At the academy, she met artist Anna Cassel, with whom she and three other artists formed De Fem, an all female art society involved with spiritual and paranormal activities. It is important to note that like in the rest of the world, the Swedish art scene was dominated by men. The esoteric, mystic subdivision of the scene was, however, the one where female artists took reign. De Fem shared a strong belief in the existence of a reality beyond the material world. They met on a regular basis to study mediumship as a means of communicating with this spiritual dimension. They would meditate, analyse texts from the New Testament, but most importantly hold seances in which they made use of automatic drawing and writing, and took vigorous notes of the contact that was made. From the automatic drawing, a practice in which you let the spirit guide you in your brushstrokes as a form of non vocal communication, af Klint developed a geometrical visual language with which she was able to conceptualise forces from the inner and outer worlds. After ten years of holding seances with De Fem, one of the spirits they contacted ordered Hilma to start The Paintings for the Temple, a task that she took on and worked on for a year in isolation. She attempted, and to her own accord succeeded, in making the invisible, visible. This inclination of hers should be linked to a similarly timed discovery of subatomic particles, radioactivity, and the X-ray, which for spiritualists confirmed a godly, invisible realm of existence. Her task in this was that of a medium, aiding outside forces in what they wanted to get on paper. She took a leap into full, nonobjective abstraction. We cannot fathom today how revolutionary her work was back then, and to know that she did it relatively detached from everyone else is wild.
As Af Klint’s work gains notoriety through her Guggenheim exhibition and she earns a well-deserved spot in the major canon, her story has to be factored into an already figured out narrative of abstract art. Just in 2013, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, arguably one of the most authoritative voices in the American contemporary art scene, held an exhibition called Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925. The museum celebrated the centennial of the development of abstraction as it moved through a network of modern artists, af Klint’s peers. Among others, Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondriaan and Kazimir Malevich reigned supreme in the exhibition, unsurprisingly, as they were and still are majorly attributed with being the first real abstract artists. Af Klint, preceding these artists and their endeavours, was nowhere to be found. MoMA cannot be expected and never insinuated that they covered all of the movement, but this selecting of names and exhibiting their works of art is essentially canon-making. Hilma’s work had already been shown in Europe since the eighties, even in Haarlem.
Being left out of any larger story than that of her own life and maybe the small realm of Swedish female esoteric artist in early 19th century can, for a part, be ascribed to the artist herself. The paintings that made their way to the public eye were the naturalistic landscapes and portraits she studied to make and sold to keep herself afloat. The work that she is now being praised for, the large collection of paintings covering human life, she explicitly mentioned in her testament to keep hidden. They were only to be made visible to the public 20 years after her death. This wish of hers is now easily framed as af Klint knowing that only after this time would people be ready, but the truth is that we do not know why she did this. Aside from this hinderance for her glory, pre- and postmortem, the reason why her abstract paintings are so fascinating is that she worked secludedly. After she received the task to create paintings such as the Largest Ten, her creating took place in a near vacuum, where she did things which would only be done years later, by artists who did not know of her. In the 2013 MoMA exhibition, a large diagram was plastered on one of the walls, covered with names of abstract artists connected to each other with lines, representing the personal contacts between them. A need for a coherent story with clear causal relationships becomes evident, and someone like af Klint would float on her own in this diagram.
Not then, not now does Hilma fit into the narrative of early 19th-century modernism, and that is why she went on to create her own world, where she and other female artists were able to practice their art and mediumship and work out incredibly detailed and well-documented theories about life and existence. The entrance of this Swedish witch-lady in the major art canon as the pioneer of abstract art is and should just now be considered as a gift. Simultaneously, it offers an answer to Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?”; there have been, we just did not know how to tell their stories until now.