How Hilma af Klint Defined a New Medium of Artistic Innovation

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Hilma af Klint discovered abstraction before Abstraction was a recognized art form. Her strong instincts for painting led her to experiment with the style years ahead of her peers most associated with the movement, such as Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich. Paintings for the Future, af Klint’s current exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, marks her first major U.S. solo exhibit, celebrating her original vision and bold endeavors into what art could become. Through new modes and themes, af Klint developed her own signature, nonobjective style to express deep, mystical ideas in abstract imagery.

Af Klint was as personally astute as she was progressive-minded. Innately, she knew that her lens on the world was very forward-thinking and likely, the world at large would not fully understand her work at the time of its creation. Upon her death, af Klint’s will specified that her art should be kept private for at least 20 years after her passing and that the collection should never be divided. The artist wanted to ensure that her message of spiritualism and connectedness would be received when it could resonate most profoundly.

Paintings for the Future uncovers af Klint’s remarkable imagination and talent in more than 170 artworks and seven notebooks from the Hilma af Klint Foundation collection. The show offers special attention to her career-defining years from 1906-20 while highlighting her decisive series, The Paintings for the Temple. Completed between 1906 and 1915, she considered these works specifically to be a spiritual calling and dedicated them to an imagined spiral temple with a transformative center. It is fitting that af Klint’s paintings are being exhibited at the Guggenheim, known for its unique spherical design and innovative art showcases. Frank Lloyd Wright created the museum to be a “temple of the spirit” for visionary art, precisely like af Klint’s. The Paintings for the Temple are a collective of artworks showing distinct phases of life in diverse sub-series. A few earlier pieces such as Primordial Choas (1906-7) and The Ten Largest (1907) show the artist’s initial endeavors into abstraction, freely combining color, shapes, and symbols. Whereas later paintings like the Tree of Knowledge (1915) have an increased level of definition, still abstract but more exacting. The Altarpiece (1915) works are the pinnacle of the sequence, the sum of all principles and ideas connecting to other worlds. Af Klint’s focus on holism and unity is reflected in her ranging interests from mathematics to botany, which come together in The Atom Series (1917) and Untitled (1920). Art provided a constant companion in her spiritual quest for balance and inner tranquility.

From her earliest forays into the arts, af Klint (1862–1944) proved to have broad-minded ideals. The Swedish-born artist studied drawing and painting at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. One of the first generations of women to receive higher education, af Klint further distinguished herself by graduating with honors. She applied her studies and became a well-known figurative artist over the following two decades. During this time, she became deeply inspired by religious, esoteric, and spiritual movements, such as Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Christianity, and Anthroposophy. In 1896, af Klint founded the “Friday Group” or “the Five” with four like-minded female artists. Together, they would hold séances to commune with the spiritual realm. This interest in otherworldliness was common among many artists at the start of the 20th century, including Kandinsky, František Kupka, Malevich, and Mondrian. Spirituality became popular as societies merged religious tradition, scientific advancement, and global understanding.

Though af Klint was very engaged in mysticism, she was aware that her interest and art were well ahead of her time. She kept her abstract artworks hidden throughout her life, convinced that the world was not yet ready to understand their significance. Upon her death, more than 1,300 paintings and over 125 notebooks and sketchbooks were found, offering testament to her advanced ideas of philosophy, spirituality, and art. Her wish was that the unified meaning of her work would endure. In 1986, af Klint’s art was first exhibited and—in the decades since—she has gained vast appreciation and recognition as an artist. In 2013, the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm held the largest traveling retrospective of her compositions to date, and the exhibition was viewed by more than one million visitors. Posthumously, af Klint accomplished her greatest personal goal. Through her life’s work, she hoped to change consciousness about art and spirituality, reaching as broadly as possible. In her after life, af Klint has realized what she began in the artistry of her daring, abstract vision.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future is on view at Guggenheim Museum in New York now until April 23, 2019.

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