For a long time, the public believed that men like Vsily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich pioneered the art form of abstractionism. On Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, an exhibition opened at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum which disproved that misconception. Hilma af Klint’s “Paintings for the Future” is the first solo show dedicated to the artist in the United States. Her work was largely private during her lifetime, leading to the aforementioned misunderstanding about abstractionism. In reality, Klint preceded those men by nearly a decade with work that incorporated spiritual and divine aspects typically attributed to the art form.
Klint’s explorations of abstractionism were unknown to her modernist contemporaries, forcing historians to reconsider how we tell stories of “modernism, and the discovery, invention, exploration of abstraction in the early decades of the 20th century,” said Guggenheim Director of Collections and Senior Curator Tracey Bashkoff in the museum’s audio guide (SoundCloud, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” 10.2019). Austen Juul-Hansen ’22 commented, “Klint was clearly ahead of her time, and her work transcends the limitations of influence.”
Klint began painting in 1906, and left behind over 1,000 pieces, mostly unseen until 1986. Attendee Eliza Callahan noted that this indicates the artist’s sense that her current world was unprepared for her work, that future audiences would be more receptive: “Af Klint’s reluctance to show her work until 20 years after her death, marked by ambiguous X and + signs in her notebooks, was also interesting. This decision communicated that she knew (or at least thought) that the world was not ready to correctly embrace her art.”
Klint’s work was largely informed by a religious movement known as Theosophy, which maintains that connections with God may be fostered through divinity and the state known as “spiritual ecstasy.” It was a transcendental spiritualism that took hold in America and Europe within literary and artistic circles in the early 20th century. Based on the belief that spirits can communicate with the living, Theosophy involves meetings known as séances, in which people gathered to receive messages relayed through a medium from dead spirits.
As a teenager, Klint began participating in séances. Theosophy is concerned with the natural and spiritual worlds. The Guggenheim narrated tour explained, “Theosophists seek to discover deeper meaning in nature and the divine through a combination of inner experiences and knowledge of the physical and spiritual realms” (SoundCloud, “Hilma af Klint”). Theosophy teased out an idea centering around the existence of a “oneness” when the world began, which was later shattered. According to the religion, life’s mission is to reunite the opposing forces. Hansen also noted this aspect of the artist’s work, remarking, “I was shocked by how much her art served as a connection to some alternative spiritual reality. I felt very impacted by her work because of my own spirituality.”
Klint’s main exhibition was a series of ten paintings entitled “The Ten Largest.” Motivated to create art spiritually, the artist claimed that an entity beyond had asked her to produce paintings on a transcendental plane that would one day be hung in a circular temple designed specifically to house them. Klint wrote instructions: “Ten paradisiacally beautiful paintings were to be executed; the paintings were to be in colors that would be educational and they would reveal myfeelingstomeinaneconomicalway…it was the meaning of the leaders to give the world a glimpse of the system of four parts in the life of man” (The Paris Review, “The First Abstract Painter Was a Woman,” 10.12.2018).
Bashkoff found the location of the exhibition perfect: “It’s a lovely coincidence, and sort of has a wonderful resonance that the works of Hilma af Klint are now being shown in the Guggenheim Museum building” (SoundCloud, “Hilma af Klint”). There is a natural connection between Klint’s ideas for her paintings temple and the building’s architecture. New York City resident Eliza Callahan concurred: “I also remember thinking that the Guggenheim was the perfect museum for this exhibit because the spiral lines of the building mirrored the swirling shapes and lines in af Klint’s work.”
The works in this specific series are gathered in one room and hung floor to ceiling—almost 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Klint sometimes walked across her work when she needed to lay down the paint upon giant canvases on the floor. She studied in Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts before branching off into more abstractionist and modernist styles. The meshing of her relatively formal artistic education with groundbreaking abstractionist techniques is evident in the simultaneous incorporation of words and letters, alongside floral and geometric aspects.
Klint additionally chose colors that juxtapose brilliantly: bright pinks and greens against pastel oranges and vivid yellows. Her incorporation of words, color and shapes was innovative. One attendee of the exhibit, Anne Rothman, stated, “Her use of color was fabulous and inventive. It shouldn’t surprise usbecausewomenhavealwaystakensuch backstage roles, and here is another example of a real artist breaking barriers and going under the radar for decades.”
Hilma af Klint may have been unknown to her contemporaries, but she has taken 2019 bystorm.