There have been a handful of times that I have walked into an art exhibition not knowing anything about the artist, and left the gallery wanted to know everything about the artist. Hilma af Klint was one of those artists.
I first saw a retrospective exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2013. All I knew of her was that she was Swedish female artist. As I entered the gallery, on my left along a huge white wall were a series of huge paintings, 240cm by 320cm, in bright orange, dusky rose, duck egg blue and pale yellow. The paintings were completely original; bold and colourful like giant kaleidoscopes with circles, flowers, swirly lines.
Curious to find out more I read the blurb that accompanied af Klint’s work. These paintings, completed in 1907, were part of a series called The Ten Largest, and were an exploration of the human life cycle, from childhood and youth to adulthood and old age. The art had been created solely from her imagination, with no recognizable references to the physical world. She had created abstract imagery. I did my art history maths, and worked out that these paintings by Hilda af Klint (1862–1944) predated the main protagonists of twentieth century abstract art, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich.
As I had studied and taught art history, I couldn’t help wondering why I had never heard of this pioneering artist before? I learned that during her life af Klint had kept her works private. In fact, because she was convinced the world was not yet ready to understand her work, she requested that it not be shown for twenty years after her death. She died in 1944 aged 81 and her work was still largely unknown until the 1980s, when she had her international debut in 1986 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Hilma af Klint was one of the first women to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. In 1882, at the age of 20, she enrolled at the Academy and spent the next five years studying drawing, portraiture and landscape painting. Simultaneous to this, af Klint had belonged to a group called “The Five”, comprising a circle of women inspired by Theosophy. These women shared a belief in the importance of trying to contact the so-called “High Masters” often by way of seances. As result, af Klint’s work was heavily influence by mystic and contemporary spiritual movements.
Last year I saw her work again as part of a small exhibition at Millesgården Museet in Stockholm. Seeing her work again in the flesh solidified my love for her art.
Hilma af Klint said about her paintings: “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”