Hilma af Klint

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.


OCA tutor Hayley Lock reports from Stockholm on a revalatory exhibition.
“A major and widely significant exhibition dedicated to the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) is on show now in Stockholm, Sweden at the Moderna Museet Stockholm from 6 February 2013 – 26 May 2013 and tours internationally to Berlin in June and Malaga in October.

Sixty nine years after her death this first major exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s life’s work casts light on a woman who worked publically as a successful landscape and portrait artist whilst privately maintained a prolific practice as a spiritualist and occultist painter whose esoteric works were often hidden from view for fear of recrimination from the theosophists and friends that she so greatly admired.

Now these hidden pieces, amounting to over 1,000 paintings and works on paper supported by decades of notebooks (around 124 in total) explaining the processes and thoughts behind the works, Hilma af Klint’s complex and articulate paintings have been revered as being possibly the first non-objective works to be made in the early 1900’s; two years prior to the Russian born artist Wassily Kandinsky who has historically been accredited with the accolade of being the first purely abstract painter.

Working in isolation and embarking on an inner journey with no apparent knowledge of the Avante – Garde movement in Europe, af Klint held regular séances (she had become a medium at 17) with four other female painters who went on to create ‘The Friday Group’ or ‘The Five’. Having being recognised as having some talent as an artist, af Klint was also offered a place at The Royal Academy of Stockholm from 1882 – 89, however to gain recognition as a serious female painter at that time would have been extremely difficult in the then male dominated world where women were not considered to be able to even be creative.

Negotiating around the masculine domain of art making by working through automatism and spiritual séances, Hilma af Klint appears to allow herself more freedom and reverence by working directly through ‘High Masters’ in their masculine form; through instructed spiritualist experience. Influenced heavily by the infamous Madame Blavatsky, the co-founder of ‘The Theosophical Society’ and writer of ‘The Secret Doctrine’, af Klint’s ‘High Masters’ guided her hand in an attempt to gain spiritual knowledge of the self and of the universe.

In this exhibition traces of this practice in its initial form appear through drawings on paper dated 1903 and 1904. These pencilled works contain loops; floral shaped scribbling’s, dots and coils. Fast, automatic, energetic marks move across the page where the “High Masters’ seemingly take hold;this experimental and no doubt liberating employment of lucid, non exacting marks reveal hidden forces at work, deals with the sense of the unconscious and looks to expand the unconscious further by having a relationship with the physical, of humanity itself.

This exhibition is as huge as it is complex. It contains a number of large brightly coloured paintings (mainly tempera on paper later glued onto canvas), examples of smaller paintings in series on canvas and linen, watercolours on paper, drawings, portraits, a botanical drawing and a traditional landscape. Outside of the space there is a film explaining Hilma af Klint’s background and working practices with two additional tablets informing you of her notebooks that have been carefully curated to explain the artists continuous editing and re-editing of ideas, the order of the works, the direction and the esoteric symbolic referencing the artist used throughout her working career.

It is hard to take all of this information in. The impact on entering the space is clear and direct. The first main wall contains seven of af Klint’s larger works on paper that were later glued onto canvas. They are closely hung and hold state in a most empowering way. It appears the curator is sending the message that this artists’ work is of some note and should be recognised as such, still in its infancy of course.

The paintings show a shift in the work that makes links from pattern and form to complex and obscure symbolism, linking science to mathematics, nature to gender. Her occult diaries containing symbols of crosses, mystical vowels, dead sea scrolls, astral and metaphysical planes, mystical initials, strange vowels cross over to the larger works, continuing to make the viewer work hard at understanding what message is being sent. It is then that you notice the rest of the space with painting after painting hung mainly in series, working their way with fluidity around the many walls contained within the exhibiting space. Cubicles of watercolours denoting The Tree of Life, Studies of world religions, Paintings for the temple, they are all there. It is clear that af Klint was prolific in her secretive world but it is hard to imagine how she managed to keep all these vast works hidden from view.

It is clear that Klint has some understanding of scientific breakthroughs in her time however her occult physics, chemistry and mathematical understanding appears ahead of its time. Her provocative nature appears to ask questions of sexuality, suggests male and female equality and is probably through this enquiry,still seen as revolutionary. In light of this, af Klint experienced continuous dismissal of her working practices and ideas linked to the scientific and mathematical study of spiritual knowledge.Her friends describe her work as ‘inappropriate’ and her contemporary Rudolph Steiner, founder of The Anthroposophical Society dismissed her ideas as wrong when asked by personal invitation to view them, claiming that she couldn’t have contact with spirits in that way although he doesn’t appear to state clearly for what reason.
This is no doubt why she claims they are her works were the ‘message for humanity for the future’ and decides to write a clause in her will that states world wasn’t ready for her ideas and that her works should remain contained until 20 years after her death.

Sixty nine years? It has been well worth the wait.

Should you be fortunate enough to travel to The Venice Biennale from June to November this year you will be able to catch five of her paintings in the Central Pavilion.”


  1. Stephanie Hollis 25 April 2013 at 7:18 pm

    These are mesmerising images. I am so glad to have heard of her – thanks.

  2. Aylish 25 April 2013 at 8:00 pm

    This looks very impressive. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Madame Blatavsky, despite being accused of faking some of the effects at her seances seems to have inspired some great art. I’ve just finished reading Sarah Jane Checkman’s biography of Ben Nicholson which contains some references to Piet Mondrian. I’m struck by some similarity between af Klint and Mondrian (although af Klint stared earlier) in that she worked without reference to external influences. Mondrian, despite living in Paris was reclusive Checkman says ‘ Theosophy explains Mondrian’s singular existence and his confidence in his art’

    How frustrating that the works were secret for so long and that she should have had to give credit for the work to Masculine ‘High Masters’.

  3. Olivia Irvine 26 April 2013 at 4:48 pm

    It is always good to know about female artists from the past. I had never heard of her, although Art History has to answer for that. I wonder how many other women artists there were that never made the books? Anyway, she has been discovered. I will endeavour to find out more about her. Many may find her ways usual and extreme ( I certain;y do), but the works stand up for themselves.

  4. Phil 26 April 2013 at 7:13 pm

    There was a short article about Hilma af Klint in the Spring 2013 edition of Tate Etc.

  5. Hayley Lock 26 April 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Thanks for the interest everyone. Hilma af Klint used the process of working through the spiritual for a huge part of her working life and despite suspicion from both friends and colleagues maintains this modus operandi for many many years suggesting that it was either a compulsion or an absolute belief in what she was doing. I am going with the latter.
    If you get the chance to see this work in the flesh (and the supporting notebooks) then consider this question when you scrutinise it and your own work in detail. When the imagination kicks in, that spark, that passion, that need to make work…where does that come from?


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