Speaking on his contemporaries at the time, Wassily Kandinsky stated: “The longer an artist must wait for his break-through in the public, the more undisturbed and powerful the force may develop in him.” For her entire life, Hilma af Klint was muted from public visibility.
The Swedish-born visual artist was active in this hiddenness, declaring to her nephew in a handwritten will that any work created through her hands would need to metaphorically ferment once she died before being seen by the public. Twenty years became forty until her work was first seen and gained traction through select audiences in the 1980s.
So much about our openly public world—where everything is seen online and nothing is left in mystery—pokes our curiosity about this especially covert artist who is snowballing into international spaces two centuries after she worked in her studio. Where did Hilma af Klint emerge from? Why did she believe her art must stay hidden and away from the public? What makes the work so valuable today and why must we pay attention?
So much about our openly public world—where everything is seen online and nothing is left in mystery—pokes our curiosity about this especially covert artist who is snowballing into international spaces two centuries after she worked in her studio.
Born in 1862 just miles outside of Stockholm, Hilma graduated with honors from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and ventured immediately into a routine practice that funneled directly into her visual art: séances and spiritualism.
Her growing interests in mathematics, botany, and painting morphed together with a respect for spirits and divine conduits to unknown worlds. Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and Anthroposophy were the fundamental belief cruxes of her practice in a time when religion and science were just beginning to reconcile following the Age of Enlightenment that permeated Europe.
Participating in numerous group exhibitions beginning in 1886, Hilma’s “conventional” landscape and portraiture works were financially sustainable in the wake of her younger sister Hermina’s death and a growing career in Sweden’s capital.
Yet, there remained a mystery—for those not spiritually inclined—to the works that really called to her, and what Hilma firmly attested was her “great work.” Sanctioned by a higher power, Hilma found community in what came to be known as De Fem (The Five) through a budding friendship with Anna Cassel, a peer of hers from the Academy of Fine Arts.
De Fem was comprised by Hilma Af Klint, Anna Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson—five Swedish women who from 1896 to 1908 gathered together in trancelike states to communicate with higher divine spirits called “High Masters.” They recorded these otherworldly correspondences through automatic writing and experimental drawing.
The turning point for De Fem arrived in 1907 when Hilma received a message from the High Masters that she should be appointed leader of the group. Disagreement from the collective on this matter led to the dissolvement of the five’s gatherings in early 1908. Over the course of a decade following this communal collapse, Hilma commenced the large-scale painting of The Temple series which contains a total of 193 paintings of multiple sub-series now known as The Great Figure Paintings, The Ten Largest, and The Group of Thirteen, to name a few.
Revolving around her newfound interest in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner—known for his spiritual philosophical seminars revolving around humanity’s rooted connection to nature and of a spiritual world filled with meaningful color theories —Hilma churned towards a painterly production where large-scale paintings spoke in letters, symbols, and holistic geometric forms. There is so much to dissect in Hilma’s work, from the human life cycle of early childhood to old age extending into the dualities of life and death, and light and dark in the form of symmetrical swans.
The pinnacle of structure for her work became known as “The Temple”—a spiral-shaped building that would house her paintings and was open to interpretation as either physical or existing solely in a spiritual dimension.
The pinnacle of structure for her work became known as “The Temple”—a spiral-shaped building that would house her paintings and was open to interpretation as either physical or existing solely in a spiritual dimension. The symbols in these oil paintings are windows into a dimension outside of individual understanding. Spirals speak towards the process of personal development and an individual’s evolution while hues of pink and yellow speak to femininity and masculinity.
Hilma sketched divinity to paper and canvas, a direct conduit and visual translator of an esoteric belief that applies to each and every living being. The smallest particle could encapsulate all infinities within its miniscule existence.
Going on to work and live on the island of Munsö with her lifelong partner Thomasine Andersson, Hilma’s travels around Europe and eventual exposure of her work to Rudolf Steiner have ripple effects in comparison to her painter contemporaries at the time: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich.
While for so long there was the belief that Wassily Kandinsky was the first to invent abstraction in painting, an encounter with Rudolf Steiner in 1910 after Steiner had seen Hilma’s work continues to be a contentious argument of who really was the pioneer of abstraction: Hilma Af Klint or Wassily Kandinsky?
Following her death in 1944, decades would pass by until her paintings were shown to the public. Eventually forming part of collective exhibitions at institutions like LACMA, the 2018 debut of Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City shattered the museum’s record for the most visited exhibition since the institution’s opening in 1959. Attributed to being destined as a spiral home for Hilma’s body of work, the serendipitous homecoming of honoring an artist’s wishes can now be seen in the Hilma af Klint Foundation, started by her nephew Erik af Klint in 1972.
The 2018 debut of Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City shattered the museum’s record for the most visited exhibition since the institution’s opening in 1959.
Now, a 2023 biopic film titled Hilma seeks to share the story of this vastly underrated artist to the masses. Screening on Saturday, March 25th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois in conjunction with the Chicago European Union Film Festival, FF2 Media’s very own International SWAN Day will host the celebration of this day as one to Support Women Artists Now and the impacts of their diverse creativity in respective global communities.
It is bliss to find the swan repeated not only in acronyms that elevate the work of woman artists, but reflected in Hilma’s fundamental symbolic dictionary. From biopics to graphic novels, the work of Hilma af Klint continues to grow in recognition and gradual veneration that pays direct homage to Hilma’s own voice as she once declared in a personal diary entry: “I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development. These possibilities I want, gradually to reveal.”
© Isabella Marie Garcia (03/20/23) — Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Check out “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” and its accompanying essays here.
To read more about The Hilma af Klint Foundation, click here.
To learn about the teachings of Rudolf Steiner in relation to Hilma’s work, click here.
Support and check out “The Five Lives of Hilma af Klint” here.
Learn more about the March 25th screening of Hilma at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. and how to celebrate International SWAN Day here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Hilma af Klint exhibition. Photo courtesy of Ryan Dickey Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
Bottom photo: FF2 Media contributor Isabella Marie Garcia sporting a Hilma af Klint sweatshirt.