We discuss the celebrated abstract innovator Hilma af Klint ahead of a new film biopic and exhibition around the artist next year.
The pioneering star of abstract art, Hilma af Klint is finally getting the recognition she deserves. When she first started creating her radically abstract paintings in 1906, nothing similar had ever been created before. Using a vocabulary of circles, triangles, organic forms and ethereal squiggles, it would be years before Kandinsky and Mondrian (who declared themselves the inventors of abstraction) would strive to make their first abstract works. Kandinsky claimed to have created the first abstract painting in 1911, while Hilma had in fact beaten him to it in 1906.
When Hilma died in 1944, she was unknown. The art establishment ignored her, like many female artists, and she barely sold a single work in her lifetime. The facts that she was a woman, had no contacts in the art world, and that she was a spiritual mystic were all strikes against her. When Halina Dyrschka, the filmmaker whose film Beyond the Visible is about Hilma’s work, was asked why af Klint has been largely ignored since her death, Dyrschka responded: “It’s easier to make a woman into a crazy witch than change art history to accommodate her. We still see a woman who is spiritual as a witch, while we celebrate spiritual male artists as geniuses.”
It seems now Hilma finally appears to be getting the fame, recognition, and artistic influence that a person with her artistic gifts deserves, albeit in a commercial world where artistic icons are turned into money-making machines: mass-produced and milked dry. Just glance over at Frida Kahlo and you’ll see how her pain, passion and torment has been twisted into a commercially lucrative merchandise machine.
Hilma was a clairvoyant and a mystic, believing her abstract forms were painted under the direction of higher spirits, guiding her. In her will, she left all her abstract paintings to her nephew, Vice Admiral Erik af Klint of the Royal Swedish Navy. She boxed and taped up her paintings, directing that her work should be kept secret for at least 20 years after her death, knowing that the world was not yet ready for her radical art. I wonder if she ever foresaw such posthumous acclaim.
Hilma did create more ‘conventional’ figurative paintings that became the source of her financial income, but what she refers to as her “great work” remained an entirely separate activity. Only spiritually interested audiences had any knowledge of this body of work, and her attempts to exhibit these paintings remained mainly unsuccessful. Remarks in her notebooks indicate that she felt the world was not ready for the powerful message her work was intended to communicate. She saw her art as a spiritual message to mankind – she had much bigger ambitions and visions in mind.
Even when the Serpentine gallery in London held a major exhibition about the artist in 2016, Hilma was largely unheard of. The success of the exhibition did travel though, making its way to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it broke attendance records with over 600,000 visitors. Daniel Birnbaum, who curated the Serpentine exhibition, says of its sister exhibition in New York: “It was the best-attended show in the history of that institution – this artist who did not show her work during her lifetime. She has forced art historians to rewrite art history. A female artist who turned out to be an abstract pioneer before Kandinsky and someone who did not have the whole entourage of collectors, museum directors, gallerists, the whole lobby that we’re so used to.”
In Hilma’s Temple Series, she was directed by the higher spirits that these works be shown in a temple, “It should be made of alabaster and have an astronomical tower with an internal spiral staircase.” Poignantly, the Guggenheim exhibition in New York where Klint’s works were belatedly given pride of place, is strikingly akin to this description. The bright light skylight, white walls and spiralling ramps look just like the temple that Hilma describes.
While it’s great news that Hilma’s art is being recognised and celebrated as it should be, a concern is that her powerful story, and art, is simplified, sweetened and feelgood-ified. With the Tate Modern in London staging an exhibition of her paintings next year, a shared Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian double whammy. The exhibition bio explains how both had a shared desire to understand the forces behind life on earth, although it would have been wonderful to see her work highlighted independently. A new film biopic about her life is also underway, with many sceptical of the director Lasse Hallström’s ‘mushy direction’.
Recently Pharrell Williams, the American record producer, rapper and singer, put NFT editions of Hilma’s Temple series up for sale. Klint’s nephew’s granddaughter spoke out against this move. “Even if you don’t believe in spirits, everyone carries spiritual beliefs and aspirations for something higher in life,” she adds, “Hilma’s paintings speak to us about that…that they’re being monetized, and itemised, and sold as NFTs—it completely goes against the will of Hilma af Klint, you can’t make money out of Hilma.”
And there lies the crux of this article: celebrating Hilma’s extraordinary talent, understanding the very real need for her vision now more than ever in our most disenchanted age, while knowing that commercialism’s sticky paws will leave its mark on it. It’s up to us to dig deeper, seek out our own truth and if we admire an artist, to understand the work and the legacy they have chosen to leave behind.