Visitors at the Guggenheim Museum's 2018 exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Over 160 non-fungible tokes (NFTs) of works from Swedish artist Hilma af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple series were released for sale by the digital art company Acute Art and Stolpe Publishing on Pharrell Williams’s GODA (Gallery of Digital Assets) platform this week — despite the strong objections of a relative of the artist.

“Even if you don’t believe in spirits, everyone carries spiritual beliefs and aspirations for something higher in life,” Hedvig Ersman, the granddaughter of af Klint’s nephew, Erik af Klint, said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Hilma af Klint’s paintings speak to us about that … That they’re being monetized, and itemized, and sold as NFTs — this completely goes against the will of Hilma af Klint.”

Simon Hohn of Stolpe Publishing said the purpose of the NFT series was to “secure the paintings digitally for the future regarding colour representation, size and with their proper titles.” He also said there are “a lot of poor depictions” of af Klint’s art, and “we want to amend that.” Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of Acute Art, told Hyperallergic that proceeds from the NFT sale “will be used to support the Hilma af Klint Foundation,” and a complete set of NFTs will be donated to the foundation.

Af Klint began work on her magnificent Paintings for the Temple cycle in 1906. Although few were aware of it at the time, the series would mark a watershed moment for art history, which had up until then never seen abstract, nonrepresentational art quite like it. Unabashed in her use of simple and joyful shapes and colors, af Klint was deeply influenced by spiritualism and Theosophy, a movement popular in the Western world at the turn of the century which unified philosophy, science, and South Asian religious traditions. Af Klint understood her works in the Paintings for the Temple series — which she worked on for almost a decade — to be part of her mystical practice. Given their esoteric quality, she insisted that they not be seen for two decades past her death.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, af Klint’s grandnephew, Johan af Klint, echoed concerns over the sale of the NFTs. Of her Paintings for the Temple, he said that Klint “wrote in one of her notebooks that she believed they constitute the sixth gospel.”

“Now some organizations want to commercialize her paintings,” he lamented.

The NFT sale includes 162 works. The remaining 31 works in af Klint’s series have also been transformed into NFTs but will be kept “non-commercial” and will remain with Stolpe Publishing. Ersman questioned why the 31 NFTs were being kept off the market, and condemned their individual sale.

“She saw these paintings as all part of one project. They were meant to be kept together,” Ersman told Hyperallergic. “They’re not meant for a person to have hanging on their wall in the living room. Now, with the NFT, they’re commercializing it, using Hilma af Klint’s name and reputation to subvert her message.” 

Acute Art has worked with contemporary artists like Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramović, and KAWS to produce NFTs and works in virtual and augmented reality. Hilma af Klint is the only non-contemporary artist listed on its website.

Three members of the board of the Hilma af Klint Foundation — first established in 1972 by Hilma’s nephew Erik af Klint, who inherited all her works and notes — are in leadership at Stolpe’s parent group, the Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

A press release announcing the NFT sale marketed it as a “digital extension” of af Klint’s catalogue raisonné publishing late this year. In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Jessica Höglund, CEO of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, confirmed that the foundation has a “non-commercial agreement with Bokförlaget Stolpe for printed and digital versions of Catalogue Raisonné (including books, VRs, ARs, NFTs etc.)” She also said the foundation has not made any statements regarding the legality of these images; because af Klint’s works are in the public domain, she said, “the Foundation is not in [a] position to either permit or oppose third third party reproductions of Hilma af Klint’s work (irrespective of whether such reproductions are posters or NFTs).”

A representative for GODA told Hyperallergic that the foundation “validated this project from its inception.” “We have great respect for Hilma’s legacy in the art world and feel honored to have the privilege of amplifying her art in such a unique and transformative way,” they said.

Ersman said that despite the copyright expiration on af Klint’s work, those related to the artist continue to hold moral rights to it — which permit her to protest the way they are being used.  

The paintings, she said, “are transcendental and holy for Hilma. If we’re respecting Hilma, we must respect them as such.”

Editor’s note 11/16/22 10am EST: This article has been updated with a quote from Simon Hohn of Stolpe Publishing.

Editor’s note 11/16/22 6pm EST: A previous version of this article stated that the Hilma af Klint Foundation was not involved in the NFT initiative. The article has been edited for accuracy: The Hilma af Klint Foundation confirmed to Hyperallergic that it has a “non-commercial agreement with Bokförlaget Stolpe for printed and digital versions of Catalogue Raisonné (including books, VRs, ARs, NFTs etc.)”

Editor’s note 11/17/22 10am EST: This article has been updated with a comment from Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of Acute Art.

Editor’s note 11/21/22 6:15pm EST: This article has been updated with a comment from GODA.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.