Photo Essays

Hilma af Klint, the Spiritualist Painter Who Pioneered Abstract Art

Witchy and prescient, Hilma af Klint’s paintings from the early 1900s curiously combine spiritualism with an interest in evolutionary biology.

A woman gazes at two of Hilma af Klint’s abstract works in the Guggenheim’s Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (all images by author)

Her story sounds almost too good to be true. Historians now believe that Hilma af Klint, an obscure Swedish artist born in the late nineteenth century, created one of Europe’s first abstract painting in 1906, beating Kandinsky to the punch by seven years. Nevertheless, af Klint demanded that her avant-garde paintings remain hidden for twenty years after her death — lest her reputation as a successful mainstream painter of landscapes and portraits take a hit. More than 1,200 paintings and drawings were subsequently stored away in her atelier, waiting for cultural tastes to change.

The eventual unveiling of af Klint’s abstract paintings coincided with the postwar wave of modernism that swept across North America and Europe in the 1960s. What should have been a serendipitous alignment of the stars for the artist was blockaded by a cavalcade of curators building the canon of modernism with an exclusive roster of male artists. It took another twenty years for her abstract paintings to receive international attention with a 1984 exhibition in Helsinki. And only now is the Swedish artist getting her due at one of New York’s most preeminent cultural institutions.

The Guggenheim Museum knows that the above story is sensational; its curators also know that you want more from the artist’s meticulously documented mythos as the archangel of abstractionism. The museum’s exhibition, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Futurepredominantly explores how the artist synthesized her dual interests of spiritualism and evolutionary biology into a prescient forecast of modern life.

One painting from the artist’s “The Ten Largest” series (1907)

A practicing Protestant, af Klint also belonged to a group of women called “The Five,” who regularly engaged the paranormal through séances. Writing in her notebook, the artist discusses how she was assigned by the supernatural “High Masters” to construct a grand temple through her work. Feverishly working without pause, like later automatic painters, this is how she found abstractionism.

Installation view of “The Ten Largest” series (1907)

She spent nine years creating her monumental cycle, “The Paintings for the Temple” (1906–15), which she planned to develop into a temple for her art. Curiously, her description of that sacred space sounds awfully like Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum. Af Klint envisioned a nearly circular, four-story building connected by a central spiral staircase. The structure, she believed, would be imbued with a “certain power and calm.” (Similarly, Wright once described the Guggenheim Museum’s architecture as a “temple of the spirit.”)

An example of one of af Klint’s traditional landscapes.

Af Klint paints her abstract works with a grandiosity matching her devotion to spirituality. The canvases are massive and their idiosyncratic shapes, squiggles, and colors provide the viewer with an overwhelming sense of wonder. The Guggenheim exhibition opens with “The Ten Largest” series (1907), which shows how the artist forged her way through the then-unknown vocabulary of abstraction. Even in this early formation, she mixes symbols of astrology with nods to human biology and the natural world.

Installation view of a painting from “Group VI, Evolution” (1908)
Installation view of a painting from “Group IX/UW, The Dove” (1915)

The exhibit comes just in time for Halloween, and there’s certainly something witchy about af Klint. Maybe she did have special powers. One of her untitled paintings from 1915 actually depicts something akin to a DNA double-helix spinning through the center of a heart. Keep in mind, the structure of DNA would not be discovered until 1953, nearly four decades after the artist painted its image.

Installation view of paintings from “Group X, Altarpiece” (1915)
Installation view of paintings from “Group VI, Evolution” (1908)
“Group I, Primordial Chaos” (1906–07)
Installation view of paintings from the series “Parsifal” (1916)

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future continues through April 23 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

The exhibition was organized by the Guggenheim’s Tracey Bashkoff, director of collections and senior curator, with David Horowitz, curatorial assistant.

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