Hilma af Klint
1862 – 1944 / Swedish painter
In 1906, Swedish painter Hilma af Klint created her first abstract painting in her Stockholm studio – five whole years before Kandinsky, the man celebrated for decades as the pioneer of abstract art. That painting was the beginning of a body of work that came to comprise over 1,300 abstract paintings. Those works, breath-taking in their consistency and obsessive quality, lay hidden from posterity for several decades. How is it possible that a woman founded abstract painting in the early 20th century, and no one took any notice?
Swedish academies open to female artists
Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was not unknown during her lifetime. As a 19th century woman, she was lucky to be able to freely exercise her exceptional talent – unlike her contemporaries in other countries. This was thanks to the fact that Sweden allowed women to study art, long before Italy, France, or Germany did so. Thus, in 1882, this daughter of an aristocratic family began her art studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. After graduating with honours, she enjoyed acclaim as a landscape and portrait painter. Af Klint travelled often, was mentioned in the press, held lectures, and organized séances and women’s associations.
As a protestant, af Klint was open to spiritual approaches and to Theosophy, the first religious association in Europe that did not discriminate against women. This was a central factor in the creative power of the free-spirited Swede. Her investigation of invisible forces played a key role in her painting.
The invisible forces in af Klint’s imagery oscillate from organic all the way to geometric abstraction. She painted her second abstract series, The Ten Largest, in 1907, in unusual colours for the era. The visionary power of her motifs is monumental, and – at nearly three metres in height – so are the paintings themselves. They are a testament to af Klint’s absolute confidence in both herself and her artistic message. The obsessed artist carried paint into her studio by the bucketful. She exhibited her innovative abstract work to the public, but reacted to negative feedback by withdrawing. She refused to exhibit a single piece of that abstract series again, as long as she lived. She was convinced that the world was not yet ready for her work. And so, at the age of 70, she decreed in her will that her theosophical-anthroposophical, abstract-symbolic work not be exhibited until twenty years after her death. And so, as with most her female contemporaries, Hilma af Klint fell into obscurity.
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the exhibition Inventing Abstraction in December 2012, af Klint was once again nowhere to be seen, while Kandinsky was featured multiple times. Although experts had since become familiar with the name Hilma af Klint, they did not feel the need to include her in the canon of art history. The story of abstract art had already been told, and the “hero roles” had been designated. What’s more, af Klint’s work was not available to the art market; her paintings were guarded by a foundation and were not for sale. They had no market, no lobby, nor did they belong to any museum. It was simply not possible to integrate af Klint into the market system, and so she posed quite a challenge for art historiography.
Erst 2013, 70 Jahre nach ihrem Tod, widmet das Moderna Museet in Stockholm der Künstlerin eine erste umfassende Retrospektive »Hilma af Klint. A Pioneer of Abstraction«. Und 2018 initiiert das Guggenheim in New York eine Einzelausstellung, die mit 600.000 Besuchern zur bestbesuchtesten Ausstellung in der Geschichte des Hauses wird. Und endlich beginnt die Kunstwelt, diese außergewöhnliche Künstlerin und ihren faszinierenden Bilder- und Gedanken-Kosmos zu entdecken. Hilma af Klint fasziniert durch ihr schrankenloses Denken. Ihr überwältigendes Oeuvre fordert uns auf, die Geschichtsschreibung der Kunst zu hinterfragen.