A long overdue first solo exhibit in the United States of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint has opened this Friday at the Guggenheim Museum. The museum, which at its inception was called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and was designated to host abstract art with a spiritual and utopian component, seems as an apposite choice for her art, which predates Vasily Kandinsky’s and Piet Mondrian.
Helma af Klint, born in 1862 in Stockholm, was fortunate to be one of the very few women to receive formal education at the Stockholm’s Academy of Fine Arts. During her lifetime she supported herself through the sale of naturalistic landscapes, botanical drawings, and portraits – figurative art rather than full abstraction was at the time the only possibility for sustenance for a female artist. But af Klint, who was keenly attuned to the spirit of her times, was also a Theosophist and Madame Blavatsky’s follower. And it is that work, which she produced insofar as she conceived of it as a transfer of the otherworldly messages, that was uniquely ahead of its time in its complete rejection of representation. This work was practically unknown until the second part of the 20th Century. We, living in af Klint’s future, are indebted to her “guiding spirits” for her bold and radically original abstractions.
The Paintings for the Temple (1906-1915), her first non-objective paintings, were commissioned by one of her “spiritual masters” in 1906 and consisted of 193 paintings grouped under several sub-series. The remarkable diversity of these paintings can be explained at least in part by the diversity of af Klint’s interests, which, apart from occult sciences, included mathematics and botany.
Spiral, a symbol of evolution permeates her visual language across the board. The exhibit commences with Group IV, The Ten Largest that are indeed monumental in size and concept as they are thought to depict the cycle of the human live, represented through abstracted forms. The final group of the series that the artist called Altarpieces and described as “the final series so far” culminates the exhibition and is located at the top of the museum’s spiral rotunda. A juxtaposition of bright geometric forms, they are striking in the energy of their visual language.
Yet, however unique and unprecedented her abstract paintings are, they cannot be seen as divorced from her conventional, figurative work. For all her art is equally permeated by the light and colors ordained by the northern skies and of folklore born under it.
Af Klint envisioned the temple, which the series would adorn, as a three-level structure of stacked rings connected by the spiral staircase. Her plan was not realized during her lifetime – the artist thought that her contemporaries were not ready spiritually and intellectually for her work, which, as she believed, channeled the epiphanies of the spirit. Her first abstractions coincided with the inception of Fauvism and anticipated Kandinsky, who is widely considered to be a pioneer of the abstract style. But in art, as in many other super-categories, the question Who got there first? often loses its primacy and, instead, is superseded by a more illuminating one – What were the forces that moved and motivated these discoveries? To this, both af Klint and Kandinsky painted the same answer– their shared belief that the unknown could become the known only through art.