Hilma af Klint’s ‘miraculous’ art: ‘In dialogue with spirits, she found her own voice’

When encountering the little-known work of Hilma af Klint, you may find yourself asking some questions. “It’s out of time and out of place; it’s almost miraculous,” says Sue Cramer, who co-curated a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. “What is this work? Where did it come from? How did it get here?”

Born in 1862, the Swedish woman was one of the world’s first abstract artists. Yet where the other founding fathers of 20th century abstraction – the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich – became indelible features of art history, af Klint has remained conspicuously absent, confined to its footnotes. In all likelihood, she is one of the most important pioneers you’ve never heard of.

Altarpieces Group X (1915) by Hilma af Klint
Altarpieces Group X (1915) by Hilma af Klint. Photograph: Jenni Carter

While af Klint made some effort to display her work during the early 20th century, she later requested that her abstract paintings remain hidden until two decades after her death. She believed that the public of her time was not ready for the work and that an audience in the future might be.

Hilma af Klint in her Stockholm studio in about 1895
Hilma af Klint in her Stockholm studio in about 1895. Photograph: The Hilma af Klint Foundation

But her secret paintings would have to wait much longer than 20 years.

Although the af Klint family unwrapped her work in the mid-1960s, it took five more decades for the artist to receive major institutional recognition, with a 2013 Moderna Museet exhibition in Stockholm, and a 2018-19 Solomon R Guggenheim Museum show in New York. The exhibition at the AGNSW, Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, continues this new interest in the old work.

The exhibition opens with a false expectation: two botanical watercolours. Where the rest of the show is abstract, bold and often towering in scale, the two quiet paintings – one of a thistle, the other of a cucumber plant – project a naturalism that exudes an almost staid restraint.

Any number of more striking works from af Klint’s sprawling oeuvre could have served as the exhibition’s starting point, yet these humble pieces suggest how af Klint was framed during her lifetime: an artist trained in the classical traditions of Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, her public practice characterised by conventional portraits and landscapes.

An 1890s botanical study of a cucumber plant
An 1890s botanical study of a cucumber plant. Af Klint’s public practice was characterised by more conventional work

Convention is banished in the next room. Here, af Klint’s radical new mode of representation is unapologetically declared, as the recognisable world recedes and is replaced by a series of abstract works that traffick in the symbolic economy of spiritualism.

By 1896 af Klint had joined with four of her female friends to form “The Five”: an occult group who met regularly to conduct seances and commune with spiritual beings. Inspired by these communions, af Klint was able to liberate her practice from past orthodoxy and push towards an entirely alien aesthetic.

Cramer suggests that af Klint’s spiritualism is one of the reasons her works failed to be taken seriously – but it also carved a rare space for unbound female subjectivity.

“She was working in a time when women were not allowed to be creative … when they weren’t supposed to make things that were new and radical,” Cramer says. “In having a dialogue with spirits, she found her own voice as an artist. It opened a whole new realm that allowed her to be creative.”

An installation view of The Ten Largest (1907), from af Klint’s most ambitious series, The Paintings for the Temple
An installation view of The Ten Largest (1907), from af Klint’s most ambitious series, The Paintings for the Temple. Photograph: Jenni Carter

Af Klint’s most ambitious series, The Paintings for the Temple (1906-15), is comprised of 193 works that took almost a decade to make. Some of the series’ most definitive pieces hang on the museum’s walls – including the aptly named The Ten Largest (1907).

Reaching almost three and a half metres in height, these 10 paintings fill a room in the heart of the exhibition, while also completely filling a visitor’s field of vision. Responding to the instructions of her spirit guides, af Klint’s 10 abstract works track the slow development of humans: from childhood until old age. By contrast, each composition was painted over the course of four short days.

GroupIX/UW, The Dove, No 2 (1915)
‘A range of religious and scientific iconography share space in her compositions’: GroupIX/UW, The Dove, No 2 (1915)

The urgency and pace of this work finds expression in the compositions; they appear like freshly dried paintings rather than the artefacts of another century.

Throughout the secular space of the museum, af Klint’s works hum with a transcendent intensity. A range of religious and scientific iconography share space in her compositions. In The Dove series (1915) we see references to Christianity and the Holy Spirit but we also encounter a double helix, mathematical notations and zodiac signs. Af Klint pulls at seemingly disparate traditions, binding them together; her approach is catholic, rather than purely Catholic.

The Paintings for the Temple series eventually culminates in af Klint’s Altarpieces Group X (1915): a painted triptych whose gold leaf scintillates in the dark and animates the exhibition’s grey walls. A bench rests in front of the work, offering a place to sit. Yet the furniture’s silent invitation feels inappropriate – the force of the work seems to demand that one kneel.

The exhibition does not end in such grandiose terms. Instead, its coda comes in the form of two small, sensitive watercolour self-portraits. In a sense, this is nothing new. The whole exhibition represents another portrait of the little-known artist, whose work has finally found the future audience it deserves.

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