Hilma af Klint - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint was born in 1862, in Solna, Sweden, as the fourth of five children of a Protestant couple, Mathilda af Klint and Victor af Klint who was an admiral and a mathematician. Most of her childhood was spent in Karlberg castle, the naval academy where her father was based. During the summer, the family would move to Hanmora, in Adelso, an island in Lake Malaren, where Hilma's fascination with nature and organic life began.
Little else is known about af Klint's childhood and her relationships with family and friends. It is known that she was close to her mother and lived with her not only in childhood but also after her father died in 1898, until her mother's own death in 1920. It seems that she was devoted to her work (both her art and her studies) and to her immediate family. One may speculate that there was no time for romance or too much excitement when following a life of devotion as serious as that of af Klint's. However, this is in artist who kept 1,000 paintings secret for a very long time so one cannot help but wonder what else the world does not know about af Klint; her mystery has become her allure.
Education and Early training
Hilma first attended the Technical School, which is now known as Konstfack, studying classical portraiture under the supervision of Kerstin Cardon. During this time, the artist already had strong leanings towards matters of the spiritual and the occult. These interests grew rapidly following the death of her ten year old sister, Hermina when af Klint was just eighteen years old. It was at this time that she first began attending séances, mystical group meetings that aimed to create a dialogue with the spirit world. At the age of twenty, in 1882, she went to study at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. She remained at the Academy for a subsequent 5 years, continuing her classical art training. After graduating with honors, she was awarded a scholarship in the form of an art studio in Stockholm's artist quarter, where her landscapes and portraits quickly became the source of her financial independence and stability. Luckily, the Scandinavian education system already admitted both men and women to their Academies (unlike France and Germany) and it was not uncommon for women to make a living from their art. It was, of course, more unusual for women to become visionaries and to surpass the talents of their male contemporaries.
In 1896, with four female artist friends, af Klint established The Five (de Fem). The group conducted séances every week until 1906, experimenting with free-flowing writing and drawing, and with other spontaneous, unplanned ways of creating (including pseudo-'exquisite corpse' drawings, a term/process later coined by the Surrealists) which aimed to allow for a more intuitive and direct way of making art. Critic Kate Kellaway, explains that these experiences "predated the surrealists by decades". In this way, privately and secretly, Hilma turned to unearthing, and furthermore understanding the unconscious as her motivation to make art. Paradoxically but also most appropriately, these abstract pursuits were rooted in a desire to understand the visible world around her in profound detail.
Indeed, she also began to study plants especially from works conducted by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and animals, having worked as a draughtsman for a veterinary institute in 1900. Simultaneously, her profound fascination with the invisible world continued (an interest which was echoed by scientific discoveries of the day with the invention of the X-ray machine, electromagnetic waves, and telegraphy) as well as her affinity with spiritual theories being developed across Europe, especially Theosophy, founded by the Russian philosopher, Madame Blavatsky, and Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy was a spiritual movement developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, which aimed to define a 'spiritual science', deeply rooted in Steiner's ideas that spirituality could be rationally understood through both science and art.
Af Klint, who was small in height, with blue eyes, usually wore black and was vegetarian, was profoundly changed following an otherworldly experience in 1904. During a séance, she heard a voice telling her to make paintings 'on an astral plane' in order to 'proclaim a new philosophy of life'. This was essentially a celestial commission, "from an entity named Amaliel who told her to paint the 'immortal aspects of man". Henceforth, from 1906 at age 44, af Klint embarked on her most prolific phase of abstract painting. Culminating in 1915, she had produced 193 works, each of which belonged to one of six series all over-arched by the larger body called Paintings for the Temple. She refers to this intensely creative period and process as being guided by a 'force', driven by a 'higher power' in a sort of 'divine dictation'.
This continuous creative process was only interrupted between 1908 and 1912, during which time she studied widely and took constant care of her mother, who had recently become blind. At some point during 1908, af Klint invited Rudolf Steiner, who was lecturing in Stockholm, to see her work hoping that he would be impressed (for she in turn was a great admirer of his writing). Much to af Klint's disappointment and distress, although attracted to individual works, overall Steiner disapproved of the artist's self-proclaimed role as 'medium' and advised her not to let anybody see the paintings for the next 50 years. This may have been a contributing factor for af Klint's decision stated in her last will and testament that no work could not be exhibited for 20 years after her death, and furthermore, that the paintings could not be sold separately. Although perhaps momentarily deterred, Steiner's discouragement did not last long and from 1912 onwards Hilma continued to paint the temple series with augmented vigor, always maintaining her public persona of being a landscape artist and keeping her more significant personal work a secret. Faultlessly maintaining the act of conventionality, in 1914 (at the absolute height of her artistic experiments), one of her traditional landscape paintings featured in a Baltic collective exhibition in Malmö, Sweden, the same exhibition where Kandinsky showed five recently painted early abstracts.
After 1915, once the Paintings for the Temple had been completed, af Klimt recorded that her 'divine guidance' had come to an end. In turn, the artist's approach to painting, mainly according to size and medium, changed. Firstly her oil paintings on canvas became smaller (as had been previously in her Primordial Chaos series) and then she began to experiment with watercolor on paper, returning to a more "automatic" process adopted in early meetings with 'The Five'. During 1917 she wrote over 1,200 pages entitled Studier över Själslivet (Studies of the Life of the Soul), detailing her experience as a metaphysical medium.
Her mother died in 1920, and subsequently she began another highly creative year, predominantly exploring world religions and studying the scientific intricacies of flowers and trees. She moved to Helsingborg, a coastal city in Southern Sweden, and between 1921 and 1930 often visited the Goetheanum in Switzerland (the world center for the Anthroposophy Movement), joining the Anthroposophy society, meeting Rudolf Steiner again, and becoming deeply immersed in his theories and ideas. During this time, af Klint was highly concerned with the legacy of her own work, cataloguing and photographing her paintings, documenting her practice, writing in her journals and sketchbooks, and reviewing previous discoveries. At an old age, she insightfully understood that her works would not be appreciated by the audience of her time, so she left all of her creations to her nephew, stipulating in her will that they should only be made public twenty years after her death. When she died in 1944, almost 82 years old, none of her abstract works had ever been shown to the public.
The Legacy of Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint did not have any contact with the modern movements of her time, yet she is now generally considered (whether useful or not) to be the pioneer and inventor of abstract art - her first abstract work was painted in 1906, which pre-dates Kandisnky's by five years. Because of this new understanding, according to art critic Mark Hudson, she has "become one of the great unlikely buzz-figures of our time". This delayed appreciation is due in part to her own wishes, which only made her works, comprising of over 1,200 paintings, 100 texts, and 26,000 pages of notes and sketches, available to the public decades after her death. One of her paintings was shown in 1986, in a collective exhibition in Los Angeles entitled The Spiritual in Art, yet her work only began to become more widely acclaimed after 2013, when the Modern Museum in Stockholm hosted an exhibition dedicated solely to her work. The lull in time before her 'discovery' is also due to the fact that af Klint did not participate in any form of self-promotion and thus the stamp of legitimacy from the art world took a long time to find her.
As explained by the Stockholm Moderna Museet exhibition catalogue (2013), af Klint's "abstract pioneer spirit is not crucial when we now encounter her work on a larger scale''. It is the underlying spirituality, the main source of inspiration and creativity in all her work that defines her artistic contribution to the world. Now, she is generally considered a 'woman ahead of her time', a mystical painter, and a 'cartographer of the spirit', an expression coined by art critic Kate Kellaway. All of her works belong to the Hilma af Klint Foundation and the impact of her creation is only now coming to be understood. As a human able to renounce the ego at a time in history when building a cult of personality was often a key to success, a full appreciation of af Klint's work involves following a path of intuitive intelligence which many viewers find challenging.
Although we remain far away from the entirely harmonious world that af Klint was working towards, it seems that it is within small collaborative groups where this ideal model can be successfully rehearsed. Similar to Af Klint's 'The Five', the Austrian artist, Birgit Jurgenssen worked supported by a small group called 'Die Damen', 'The Ladies'. The contemporary German artists, Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder (together known as 'Das Institut'), interested like af Klint in expression of the unconscious and the difficult to decipher, quote the artist to be one of their "heroes". Furthermore, there are other contemporary artists currently making powerful artwork shared and critiqued principally by other artists rather than by critics and gallerists. This is an individual decision based on the realization that self-promotion can be a distraction when the goal is to facilitate true meaning. Af Klint assures young artists that 'hiding' one's work does not mean that it is not still 'seen'.