She Was Once Disregarded. Now Art Lovers Are Lining Up to See Her Work

She was a pioneer of abstract art, preceding even Kandinsky and Mondrian, but virtually unknown in her lifetime. Today, 75 years after her death, and after an exhibition of her works broke all records at the Guggenheim, a selection of works by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint can be seen in Tel Aviv, too

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A work by Hilma af Klint.
Credit: Albin Dahlström / Hilma af Klint Foundation
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In 2013, an explosion rocked the art world, resonating far and wide. Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, a national museum of modern art, mounted an exhibition entitled “Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction.” It was the largest show ever – 230 works – of the unknown Swedish artist, who died in 1944 at the age of 81.

“She was doing something that was not on the retina of people at her time, in terms of size, color, composition and, of course, the abstraction — she was very much a pioneer,” Iris Müller-Westermann, the Moderna’s curator of international art, told The New York Times at the time.

Subsequently, af Klint’s works were displayed at the Venice Biennale of art, the Pompidou Center in Paris, London’s Serpentine Galleries and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. The peak came in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York: The show, which ran from October 2018 until this past April, was viewed by 600,000 people – an all-time record for the museum.

Hilma Af Klint.Credit: The Hilma Af Klint Foundation

At present, 14 works by af Klint are on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as part of an exhibition called “A New Age: The Spiritual in Art.” The show, which runs until February 2, 2020, also includes works by the late Swiss artist Emma Kunz and by contemporary artists Marina Abramovic, Muntean/Rosenblum (the joint artistic persona of Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum), Maxime Rossi, and a joint work by Friedrich Kunath and Adam Rabinowitz. There’s another participant as well, who is both present and absent – Wassily Kandinsky, from whose 1912 text “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” the exhibition takes its title.

The paintings by af Klint represent five of her most important series, gleaned from the 1,200 works she left behind at her death. Four large paintings from the series “The Ten Largest” open the exhibition: “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Maturity” and “Old Age.” They are indeed outsized, and saturated with color. They are full of circles, flowers, amorphous shapes, symbols of the infinite, seashells, curls, spirals, numbers, letters, invented words.

“I arrived at af Klint due to my interest in outsider artists,” says the show’s curator, Ruth Direktor. “I’ve been thinking about this exhibition for the past four years” – well before the buzz generated by the Guggenheim show, she notes. “It’s a magnificent case of an entire oeuvre that was miraculously preserved, because her family safeguarded it and waited for the moment when it would be right to make it public.”

The paintings were done in the first two decades of the 20th century, a few years before Kazimir Malevich painted his famous black square, a few years before Kandinsky began doing abstract paintings, and about 15 years before Piet Mondrian started to create his signature compositions in red, yellow and blue. They and a few other male artists are, as is well known, the recognized founders of abstract art.

“Kandinsky was actively campaigning for himself as being the first abstract artist, constantly writing his gallery and saying, ‘Hey, you know, I was the first! I painted the first abstract painting in 1911!’” art historian Julia Voss, who has written a biography of af Klint, told The Times in 2013. “He was obviously successful, as he’s widely considered the father of 20th-century abstraction. But all the while, af Klint, much more privately, had already been creating these striking, abstract visuals for years.”

Hilma af Klint's show at the Guggenheim in New York.Credit: Ryan Dickey

Painting for the future

Hilma af Klint was born in Karlberg Palace, near Stockholm, in 1862 to a family of naval officers who created an economic foundation for her creative art. According to Direktor, af Klint learned about astronomy, navigation and mathematics from her family. She began painting at an early age and at 20 was accepted to Sweden’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, one of the first art schools in the world that admitted women.

“She painted in a completely naturalistic style, until she suddenly began developing a style of her own,” the curator notes. Together with her artistic pursuits, she took an interest in séances from an early age, believed in supernatural forces and was a member of various spiritual groups. Anthroposophy and theosophy also attracted her.

A work by Hilma af Klint.Credit: Albin Dahlström / Hilma af Klint Foundation

Between 1896 and 1906, she met regularly with four other female Swedish artists for séances and spiritual studies. They were known as “The Five.” “They were akin to a support group of women who interested themselves in spirituality,” Direktor says. “One of them, Anna Cassel, was a woman of means who financed the building of a house for them in 1916 on the island of Munso,” not far from Stockholm. The residence was designed like a Gothic cathedral, with a spiral staircase and was intended to be a venue for the exhibition of a series of works called “Paintings for the Temple,” several of which are on view in the Tel Aviv exhibition.

In 1908, af Klint met Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the anthroposophic movement. He admired the images she had created but was critical of the spiritual aspects in her work. “He did not give her his blessing, but said, ‘Our contemporaries will not understand you, you are painting for the future,’” according to Direktor. “It’s not clear how that was meant to be taken – as encouragement, reinforcement or disparagement. It’s in her diary.” (Af Klint left 124 notebooks containing 26,000 pages filled with systematic documentation of the process of painting and of analyses of the works.) Steiner’s comment became the title of the exhibition at the Guggenheim: “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.”

Credit: Albin Dahlström / Hilma af Klint Foundation

In her will the artist requested that her works not be shown until 20 years after her death. She never married and had no children and thus, adds Direktor, “her nephew inherited the estate and safeguarded the works in a storage room. He tried to interest museums in them in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they gradually came to be exhibited.”

In the catalog accompanying the Tel Aviv exhibition, writer and consultant Louise Belfrage recounts the process of af Klint’s acceptance. She was first shown in 1986, in the exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The curator of that exhibition, Maurice Tuchman, happened to see her work during a visit to Finland.

Other voices

Critical opinion of af Klint has fluctuated during the past few decades. Some maintained that her works are spiritual and not artistic, thus diminishing her influence and importance. None of her works were included in the 2012-13 exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Finally, the efforts of a number of art scholars paid off, and af Klint’s name is today familiar to every art lover in the world. The headline of the review of the Guggenheim show by the veteran New York Times critic Roberta Smith – “‘Hilma Who?’ No More” – sums up the change concisely.

Credit: Albin Dahlström / Hilma af Klint Foundation

“Af Klint’s lifespan,” says Direktor, “almost exactly parallels that of Kandinsky. Both of them studied theosophy, both were Christians and open to spirituality – but she was omitted from the general story. We can only say that the fact that she was a woman who conducted séances and spoke to spirits meant that there was practically no chance that she would be taken seriously. She was also from Sweden, which was perceived as an artistic periphery. Those in charge of making decisions at museums in the 20th century, at the MoMA and other places, left no room for talking about her or displaying her art. It’s now up to Sweden to build a museum that will collect her works.”

The Tel Aviv exhibition shows clearly that the history of art is randomly written, that criteria of what’s good and what isn’t aren’t clear.

Direktor: “These are clear cases that exemplify the degree to which the history of art is dictated by particular voices. It’s actually a hopeful sign that in our day we can read other voices and identify bodies of work that were under the radar. It wasn’t necessarily deliberate suppression, it just wasn’t in the field of vision of those who wrote. They didn’t see it. It’s very exciting that things are more dynamic today. In this context, museums are faster than schools and academia, where time must pass before unknown artists are incorporated. The role of museums is also to reveal artists such as Hilma af Klint.”

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