With her claims to communication with spirits, and the pioneering abstractions she made before those of many famed male modernists, the artist Hilma af Klint has been a constant source of intrigue over the past decade. A new documentary about the artist and an exhibition originally expected to open this month at the Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden, occasion a look back at the artist’s mysterious work. Below, a guide to the elusive artist’s life and work.
She wasn’t well-known until the past decade.
There were some practical reasons for why af Klint’s work wasn’t widely exhibited for years. Before she died in 1944, she stipulated that her work couldn’t be shown for 20 years and made it clear that many of her paintings couldn’t be sold individually. It wasn’t until 1987, the year her work appeared in a Los Angeles County Museum of Art survey of spiritualism and abstraction, that her work began appearing at major institutions; two years later, the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York gave her canvases a solo showcase organized by artist R. H. Quaytman. Yet her work remained outside the spotlight for decades—until, in 2013, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm mounted a traveling retrospective that became a surprise hit. Six years later, the Guggenheim Museum in New York stated that its own retrospective, which closed a year ago, had received 600,000 visitors, making it the most widely seen exhibition the museum had ever done.
She may have been among the first artists to take up entirely abstract painting in Europe.
Was af Klint in fact the first painter to take abstraction to the point of non-objectivity? There is a fair amount of scholarly debate on this point, but the Guggenheim show rested on a thesis that her abstractions predate similar ones by Wassily Kandinsky, widely regarded as being among the first to take up non-objective art. Whether or not she truly was the first, she did something new when she began creating pictures composed of curlicuing lines, large swaths of muted colors, and vague animal forms shortly after the turn of the 20th century. But, because her abstract works may not have been shown during her lifetime, her colleagues largely did not take note. (There is disagreement over whether her work was even known to Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, two artists who died the same year as af Klint and helped promulgate the spread of abstraction in America and Europe.) She was not included in “Cubism and Abstract Art,” a 1936 Museum of Modern Art survey in New York that helped cement the history of modernist abstraction.
Before her abstractions, she had a traditional art education.
While af Klint may be best-known for making abstractions that she claimed were created at the behest of spirits, she started out the standard way: by going to art school. At age 20, af Klint began attending the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, one of the most important art schools in Sweden, and got a training in drawing, with an emphasis on portraiture and landscapes. Early on, her art evidenced a boundary-pushing ethos—she drew male models without the small underwear they wore while standing before students, flouting what was expected of female artists at the time. After graduating, af Klint’s landscape paintings were noticed by the local art community—one work even appeared in a show that also contained work by Kandinsky, another famed modernist. (Guggenheim curator David Horowitz, who worked on the museum’s af Klint show, has said the two never met.)
She claimed to be able to commune with spirits.
Starting in 1896, af Klint and four of her female artist friends formed a cadre known as the Friday Group, which was dedicated to the study of Judeo-Christian scripture, followed by séances intended to reach beings that existed beyond the visible world. Eventually, they began calling themselves the Five, and they continued meeting for years. Their séances proved particularly influential for af Klint, whose leap into abstraction was spurred on by the deities who spoke to her. By 1904, she was claiming that she’d been commanded to do artworks by these beings, and working under the sign of one such deity named Amaliel, she undertook a full year of preparation to create what would become some of her most famous works.
Her “Paintings for the Temple” became the works that defined her career.
During her séances held with the Five, af Klint felt that she was being commanded to build a temple to house a number of artworks. “Amaliel offered me a work and I answered immediately Yes,” she wrote in her notebook. “This was the large work, that I was to perform in my life.” And indeed it wound up being her largest realized project: She produced more than 190 paintings total for a series known as “Paintings for the Temple,” with a whopping 111 of them alone being produced between 1907 and 1908. Ultimately, the temple she envisioned these works—a four-story form with a spiral staircase at its center—was never realized.
Developments in science and studies of nature may have informed her abstractions.
Before she began making non-objective art, af Klint worked briefly as a draughtsperson for a veterinary institute, producing detailed drawings of animal surgeries. That interest in the natural world stuck with her throughout her career—she studied Carl Linnaeus’s botanical drawings and even herself drew flowers, carefully mapping out their parts. Some scholars have suggested that such an interest in biology could have impacted her abstractions, which have been compared to natural formations. Late in her life, she gave a cache of her diagrammatic drawings to a library in Dornach, Switzerland, but the collection seems to have disappeared.
She corresponded with famed philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
While af Klint’s modernist colleagues may not have been aware of her art, at least one important philosopher was. In 1908, af Klint reached out to Rudolf Steiner, a leading Austrian philosopher, to ask for his thoughts on her paintings. Steiner, like af Klint, was involved in some of the day’s more out-there forms of spirituality—he pioneered an area of study known as anthrosophy, which focuses on the idea that there is a world beyond this one that informs the human experience. Yet af Klint’s art even eluded Steiner, who told her to hide her work away for 50 years. After his correspondence, she took a short break from art-making, using her time instead to attend to her mother, who was dying. Later on, when Steiner was working on opening an anthrosophy center in Dornach, af Klint approached the philosopher once again, hoping that he might want her mystical paintings for it. He rebuffed her.
Af Klint’s art has had a strange afterlife.
In 2013, the same year as the Moderna Museet retrospective, art historian Julia Voss made a provocative claim in the Tate museum network’s Tate Etc. magazine: af Klint was the first abstract artist, not Kandinsky. “We value abstract art, however, as a freedom of expression that we would not want to live without,” she wrote at the time. “And Hilma af Klint discovered it back in 1906.” That article helped kindle widespread interest in af Klint, whose work has been viewed through a feminist lens and is now celebrated for taking up a style that has historically been seen as being pioneered by men. Now, figures beyond the art world have explored af Klint’s work. In the 2016 film Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart as a celebrity’s assistant who is haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, af Klint’s art plays a starring role. “I wanted to make a film about the invisible,” director Olivier Assayas told i-D in 2017. “It doesn’t have to be scary. It can be an inspiration, as it was for the great work of Klint.”