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Installation view, ‘Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen’ at Serpentine Gallery, London, March 3–May 15, 2016) (image © Jerry Hardman-Jones)

LONDON — The first thought that struck me about the Serpentine Gallery’s exhibition of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, Painting the Unseen, was: Thank goodness — finally a solo show starring a female artist! And not just any female artist: Hilma af Klint is a brilliant choice. Few people beyond the art world have heard of her, and the work on view here proves that she was such an intriguing individual and artist, this show is so much more than the product of tokenism.

Upon entering, you’re greeted with enormous, geometric murals in flat blocks of color, instantly recognizable as in some way spiritual, even occult. Glance at the date and you see that af Klint effectively ventured into the principles of abstraction well before its more famous exponents (Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich), something the publicity material takes pains to emphasize. Even more fascinating is that the abstract works here were apparently made secretively, withheld from exhibition at her own instruction for 20 years after her death.

Installation view, ‘Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen’ at Serpentine Gallery, London, March 3–May 15, 2016) (image © Jerry Hardman-Jones) (click to enlarge)

Af Klint was trained in portrait, landscape, and botanical painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm, from 1882 to 1887. From the late 1880s on, however, she rejected these disciplines, joining four other female artists to form the group De Fem (The Five), which conducted weekly séances and engaged with esoteric religious philosophies.

This side of her work — presented here as the primary side, the academic pieces completely discarded — was thus wholly rooted in spiritual concerns. She used painting as a medium (pun intended) through which the secret language of nature, whether cosmic or earthly, could be manifested, as well as early experimentations with automatic drawing. This may be the crux for understanding why her art has for so long been ignored: The level of finish (or distinct lack thereof) evidenced in the works, combined with a penchant for unplanned, experimental sequences including meandering lines and automatic drawing, indicates that the physical paintings, for af Klint, really were planes on which she communicated with immaterial and spiritual forces. They are far removed from the traditional, Western notion of not only representative art, but also, crucially, anti-representational art. In a way, to mention her work in the same breath as any of the Modernist abstraction movements is misleading, undermining real efforts to understand her real purpose.

Installation view, ‘Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen’ at Serpentine Gallery, London, March 3–May 15, 2016) (image © Jerry Hardman-Jones) (click to enlarge)

Af Klint’s paintings appear as a series of sequences, in which one visual theme is explored in limited but specific directions, in a surprisingly methodical manner. So the works in Primordial Chaos Group I (Nos. 1 to 25) (1906–7) are restricted to a limited color palette and are of uniform size, as are those in Seven Pointed Star: Evolution (Nos. 1 to 16) (1908). The psychedelic, formless shapes and squiggly brushmarks look like they might have been made by someone in a trance or possessed, which is perhaps exactly the point. Three versions of “Altarpiece” (1915) are more monumental with solidly blocked-out color, exploring chromatic shading combined with the hard, basic geometric shapes of a triangle and circle. These look more like charts, their meaning mysterious and elusive while simultaneously simple and — in their own curious, restrained way — logical. It is staggering to think that these were completed in 1915; viewed in isolation, and without looking at any wall text, you would be hard pressed to place them historically.

Installation view, ‘Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen’ at Serpentine Gallery, London, March 3–May 15, 2016) (image © Jerry Hardman-Jones) (click to enlarge)

Most striking are the enormous depictions (if they can be called that) of the stages of life in her The Ten Largest sequence. These jumble together vaguely feminine motifs of eggs, flowers, and swirls in distinctly pastel shades of pink, orange, and blue. Again, the meaning is mysterious and elusive, but here unmistakably fecund. They should be treated not as artworks expressing inner thought or narrative but mystical charts into other planes. They suggest a 20th-century equivalent of the maps and diagrams we see in Medieval manuscripts, created by writers, philosophers, cartographers, and scientists who were trying to make sense of the world around them.

Hilma af Klint, “Group IX/UW, No. 25, The Dove, No. 1” (1915), oil on canvas, 151 × 114.5 cm (courtesy Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; photo by Moderna Museet/Stockholm)

Presenting her as an undiscovered artist is perhaps the wrong way to consider Hilma af Klint. Much is made of her modernism because we are mistakenly viewing her through the prism of defined art movements. In this light, we may be more critical of perceived shortcomings, like some figurative representations and automatic drawings and texts that appear clunky and awkward. High finish and polished, considered design — the hallmarks of Modernist abstraction — were not her concern in her quest to connect with the spiritual. Instead, she should be admired for what she was: as a wonderfully refreshing and unique presence in art history.

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen continues at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London) through May 15.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...

41 replies on “The Woman Who Found Abstraction Before the Modernists”

  1. So, when Kasimir Malevich or Mark Rothko talk about their art as spiritual exercises, it’s modernist, but when a women does it, it’s some kind of mindless drivel?

    1. So it’s modernist mindless drivel. As is the spirituality tagged onto any great abstraction.

        1. It was an epiphany. Kandinsky came down from soviet heaven with a flaming torch to illuminate the shams and Hallmark cards. Or was it a dolphin?

      1. Yes, Linda, How DO you know? From your comment it sounds like you haven’t a clue. If true, what a shame, and do you know what you are missing?

  2. hmm the title is a bit of hyperbole, though technically true i guess.
    lots of people found abstraction before the modernists; many made that point when moma had their abstraction show that left out indigenous and non-european civilizations.
    the article does its best to disavow (rightly, in my opinion) any connection to modernism; so i’m left wondering why the term is continually used in a comparative context at all.

    that said, the article is excellent in bringing much-needed attention to this important artist.

    1. I’m kind of with you there … Abstraction is the basis of art. Without abstraction we would not have any imagery at all. Cave paintings were the beginning of abstract art. These egg heads forget that basic thing and in the awakening of what we think of as modern art , that is exactly where the influence came from … antiquity. Primitive cultures as they like to call them. When in reality , it was the Europeans that had and still have a primitive culture focused on back patting and material possessions.

  3. Seems like this is the same exhibition that was at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin in 2013. Important that she finally gets the recognition she’s always deserved. Without a walkthrough with an expert in theosophy and anthroposophy, however, the actual meaning of her paintings is lost – she was painting in code.

    1. The “actual meaning” is coded? OK, but at least you admit af Klimt’s aesthetic was absent (“lost”).

      1. Absolutely, and I love her work, even without trying to understand it. Being in the presence of her paintings just makes me feel better – her palette, forms, format – all of it – have a palpable, calming effect on me. The inverted pyramid, sphere and pyramid picture above were presented in their own chapel like room in Berlin, which really suited them, amplifying their effect.

  4. The title of this article is really misleading. Modernism has it’s roots in the mid 19th century, and there were plenty of Russian painters making completely non-representational work several years before this woman.. I think her work is fantastic, and I love seeing it showcased, but the title of the article should really be changed. Also, if you really want to talk about the origins of abstraction you can look to Byzantine and islamic art pre 16th century.

    1. Don’t have time to finish your whole post right now Martin, but some very interesting points.
      Some of us are still teaching an observational approach, it’s the main focus of what I do with my freshmen: phenomenology, the biology of seeing, gestalt. The picture plane as an arena of perceptual experimentation….this mixed in with some traditional drafting skills.
      I think you are correct, there can be something extremely stifling and even paralyzing about the contradictions of identity driven art, especially when predetermined political categories function as a defining template for identity.
      I don’t know when your last forays into academia were, but I got a lot out of your teaching at the Art Institute of Boston back in 1993-94.

      1. Easy to tack on the “spirituality” tag without defining what it meant to her and others.Steiner’s blackboard drawings that I write about in the blogpost which were a huge influence on Beuys are rarely talked about.

  5. She was not “the” woman who anticipated the modernist abstractionists.
    Georgiana Houghton beat her by a mile.

  6. “Thank goodness for a … female solo show”. Is anyone else done with the female victim artist thing? Or am I just a horrible insensitive male who realized a long time ago that the art world will never be particularly just to males or females. How many female ‘Jewish’ artists turned down a solo show at the Jewish Museum even though it is clearly, by definition, mandate and actions, a racist museum.

    Regarding this artists work. Love it. And love that it has its own “point of departure” (A Matisse turn of phrase). I think one does justice to the artist to look at the work without our historical and intellectual baggage and just view it with fresh eyes. The usual comparison thing forces a reading that may simply not be true.

      1. I stopped reading at “Thanks goodness …” too, because it signaled the writer had ulterior motives in writing on the work and is generally clueless. (Serpentine had two solo shows of women artists last year.) Her “first thought” was a cue to the reader that what follows is a casually informed puff piece.

        1. Hey Bitch Warrior, I like your attitude, and introducing the factual record of Serpentine’s exhibition schedule. The author’s criticism of the galley and effectively of each staff member there and all of it’s artists is not something that should be done without some actual facts… ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’.

          1. Well, she doesn’t understand what abstraction and Modernism are either, but arguing about that would take longer than just pointing out the author is posturing a feminist complaint out of embarrassing ignorance.

          2. OK, you forced me to read the article. The writer just bumped her head into the Theosophical roots of early Modernist abstraction and says “wow, super different!” when it’s not at all. She wrote a bunch of effusive nonsense, pretending that the work is so “out there” when the actual problem is her not having enough knowledge of the subject to provide a meaningful context for it. No one should expect her to be a Linda Nochlin, but her publicity review is no more informative than the gallery press release.

            Also, you should ban me.

  7. It’s not the highly refined minimalism of Agnes Martin or O’Keeffe, more like Charmion von Wiegand, but stands on its own. The No. 25 last image is quite smart. These are less busy than many Kandinsky pieces thus suggests being closer to contemporary approaches.
    This kind of florid abstraction is way too designy for me but I remain open to appreciating it from an intellectual viewpoint rather than as a creative inspiration. De Kooning does it best — more art than the engineering style involved in all this. Granted, not all artists can be so free.
    Thanks for the article, don’t get an eye-opener every day.

    1. Outside of labels by divisionists , all paintings are abstracted from whatever and therefor Abstract.

  8. Wish we could lose the notion that art history is linear and there was some kind of foot race between artists to reach abstraction as a kind of finish line. It’s a myopia that discounts all those who didn’t create such work although they conceived of it, considered it and rejected it. These are fine works and they stand on their own without a gold medal for being “first” in anything.

  9. this is a pretty confused article. Glad Klimt is getting a show, though. But to describe her shortcomings as *clunky* (her occasional figurative moments) is hardly very articulate criticism. Klimt is sui generis actually. And it diminishes her rather unique vision to lump into some artifical continuum.

  10. Good example of the implicit bias at work when women do the same thing men do and it’s infantalized and trivialized, but when men do it, it’s considered innovative and profound, lol. And the comments here are a good example of male fragility when that implicit bias is pointed out.

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