Hilma af Klint

Several colorful murals of Hilma af Klint on display at a Guggenheim gallery.
Paintings of Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim. Photo by Ryan Dickey (2018), via Flickr, CC 2.0 license.

Hilma af Klint – Abstract Painter and Mystic

Hilma af Klint was an early pioneer of abstract painting. Many of her large and colorful paintings predate the work of Kandinski. She lived and worked in Sweden from 1862 to 1944. Family vacations on the island of Adelsö may have initiated her appreciation for natural forms. In these surroundings she developed an eye for beautiful colors and textures.

Hilma entered the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the age of twenty. During the years 1882–1887 she studied drawing, portraits, and landscape painting. While working in Stockholm, Hilma’s conventional paintings became a source of financial income. She appeared to earn a living as “an accomplished but unadventurous portrait, landscape and botanical artist.”

Hilma af Klint’s Hidden Art – Revealing the Invisible Universe

Hilma’s abstract paintings were hidden from view until many years after she died. In fact, her will stipulated that many paintings were not to be viewed until 20 years after her death. Consequently, people were stunned when the enormous abstract paintings were unveiled in the 1960’s. The mystery of Hilma’s hidden art, along with her reluctance to reveal it, mirrors the Vivian Maier posthumous revelation.

Hilma af Klint – The Swan – No. 16 (1915)
Hilma af Klint – The Swan – No. 17 (1915)

Hilma af Klint - The Swan No. 18
Hilma af Klint – The Swan No. 18 (1915)

“The experiments I have conducted … were pioneering endeavors. Though they travel through much dirt they will yet retain their purity.”

From the journals of Hilma af Klint ~ As quoted in the New York Times

Spirals and Spirituality

Large yellow spiral pattern - from the top left section of Hilma af Klint's painting called The 10 Largest -- painted in 1907.
The top left section of a painting called the ‘10 Largest‘ aka the ’10 Most Important’ (1907).
Nautilus shell cut in half, exposing inner chambers in a logarithmic spiral.
Nautilus shell cut in half, exposing inner chambers in a logarithmic spiral. Photo via Wikimedia, CC 3.0 license.

Blue and yellow spirals, and a color wheel. A cut out section from the bottom left Hilma af Klint's painting called the 10 Largest -- painted in 1907.
The bottom left section of the ‘10 Largest‘ (1907).

Hilma was fascinated with geometric patterns. Mathematicians use the Fibonacci sequence to describe spiral shapes appearing all over creation. The nautilus shell is one example of these logarithmic spirals. Some distant galaxies are arranged in amazing spirals. Who can explain the resurrection of dead seeds – sprouting new life in spring? Who can fathom the unfurling of ferns?

Painting the Secret World of Spiritual Ideas

Hilma af Klint’s abstract paintings attempt to portray spiritual ideas. How does one paint unseen spiritual forces? How does an artist portray realities beyond the observable world? In 1896, she began meeting with four other women in a circle called “The Five”. In a trance, they experimented with automatic drawing and writing. “The Five” were early adherents of theosophy.

In 1904, during a séance, she received a “commission” to create a series of paintings “on the astral plane.” The paintings were to represent man’s transcendental truth rather than mortal likeness.

Her abstract work was first shown at the 1986 exhibition “The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890–1985” in Los Angeles. This exhibit was the starting point of her international recognition.