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The secret paintings

Black-and-white photograph of a woman with hair pulled back in a bun, wearing a long skit and high-necked long-sleeved blouse. She sits facing us, her elbow on a table, with her hand propping up her head. In the room behind her are various artworks, some facing the wall.

Hilma af Klint at her studio at Hamngatan 5, Stockholm c1895. Photo courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm

The experiments I have undertaken,’ the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint wrote in 1906, ‘will astound humanity.’

Or, as Sue Cramer, curator of Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, puts it: ‘You’re entranced by the mystery of it all, and by the beauty of the works. I was amazed that they had been made so early last century.’

‘Their colours, abstract forms and symbols are just so extraordinary. And the scale of many of the paintings! The scope of af Klint’s vision is remarkable. That this was achieved so early and by a woman, when things were so restrictive for her gender. You just think, well, how could this be?’

Incredulity is a common response upon first learning of af Klint’s paintings, which are on display in an exhibition co-curated by the Art Gallery of NSW’s Nicholas Chambers. The astonishment only deepens when one learns about the nature of their creation and the artist herself.

Born in Solna, Sweden, in 1862, into an aristocratic naval family, in 1887 af Klint graduated with honours from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and earned a living as a portraitist, landscape painter, botanical artist and illustrator. However, a deep commitment to the supernatural, science and spiritualism led to her attempts, Cramer writes in the exhibition catalogue, ‘to convey knowledge of the universe that lies beneath the visible world’ – what af Klint described as ‘images of the life that exists beyond everything’.

Drawing of part of a plant with a large yellow flower, a large bud and several green leaves and tendrils.

Hilma af Klint Botanical study 1890s, HaK1327. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

Af Klint’s biographer Julia Voss, who has written for the catalogue, describes the artist as a revolutionary mystic. ‘Through her painting, af Klint hoped to start a movement away from materialism and dualistic thinking and towards a new spirituality. Spirit, she was convinced, was stronger than material. Consciousness could determine being. Humans were capable of changing world circumstances and themselves.’

Between 1896 and 1908, af Klint met regularly with a group of women, known as The Five, who conducted seances and recorded the messages they received in the form of texts and automatic drawings. ‘She wielded her paintbrush like a wand,’ art critic Jennifer Higgie writes, ‘summoning spirits who she believed expressed their visions through her’.

Af Klint’s output as an artist-medium was prolific and her pioneering approach to abstraction unprecedented. Upon her death in 1944, she left behind 1300 paintings and 26,000 pages of notebooks. Believing the world wasn’t ready for her work, which she felt had been misunderstood during her career, she left instructions that it be kept from public view for the next 20 years.

Disbelief has turned to delight wherever af Klint’s work has gone on public display since, most notably in New York in 2018 when an exhibition broke attendance records at the Guggenheim Museum. ‘If you like to hallucinate but disdain the requisite stimulants, spend some time in [this] staggering exhibition,’ wrote The New York Times critic Roberta Smith.

When Sue Cramer first began researching the exhibition, even New Yorkers, like much of the world, were largely unaware of af Klint’s life and work. ‘I didn’t know at that stage how extraordinarily popular it would turn out be in shows overseas,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t seeking a blockbuster. I just thought we should do this artist because she’s important. She left behind a substantial body of work that needs to be reckoned with. I felt it really did have a place in Australia as there were artists who were interested in it. And I was interested in it.’

A multi-coloured triangle with a sun-like circle at its apex.

Hilma af Klint Group X, Altarpiece, no 1 1915, HaK187. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

The centrepiece of the exhibition, which includes works from across af Klint’s career, is a series of paintings known as The ten largest 1907. They are drawn from the artist’s staggering cycle The paintings for the temple, 193 works made between 1906 and 1915.

‘As an artistic achievement – and an expression of cosmic connectedness – these predominantly abstract paintings, some more than three metres high and two metres wide, were utterly unprecedented at the time of their making,’ Cramer writes. ‘Remarkably, af Klint had achieved a command of abstract form several years earlier than the established progenitors of modernist abstraction Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.’

In her notebooks, af Klint described how the spirits foretold that she would paint ten paradisiacally beautiful paintings, a prophecy which led to her making of The ten largest. Each of these enormous compositions took just four days to paint. Together, these works provide an insight into four phases of human life: childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. ‘My mission, if it succeeds, is of great significance to humankind,’ she wrote. ‘For I am able to describe the path of the soul from the beginning of the spectacle of life to its end.’

If keeping her work secret delayed af Klint’s consideration by art history, the fact it was also a spiritual endeavour allowed some art historians to dismiss it outright. She was overlooked entirely in MoMA’s 2012 exhibition Inventing Abstraction 1910–1925. ‘Put bluntly,’ Jennifer Higgie writes, ‘when men like Kandinsky, Malevich and others explored spirituality, it was considered a serious endeavour. But when a woman followed the same path, she was dismissed as insignificant at best, a crank at worse.’

Cramer believes the popular reception af Klint’s work has enjoyed more recently is due to the artist’s capacity to connect with a range of audiences in di!erent ways, both from within and outside the art world. ‘There’s her challenge to the established narrative of art history as a pioneer of abstraction, but then her spiritualist pathway to abstract form opens out whole new levels of meaning, that seem to attract wider audiences.

‘Her deep love of nature and holistic view of how humanity and the natural world are connected to the cosmos is something that resonates strongly today, as we face a time of environment crisis. Then there’s the fascination of af Klint’s practice of channelling spirits, and how this merged with her own artistic vision to produce such extraordinary imagery, so ahead of its time.’

Hilma af Klint (Sweden 1862–1944) Group IX/SUW, The swan, no 1 1914–15 oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation HaK149. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden 79114

Hilma af Klint Group IX/SUW, The swan, no 1 1914–15, HaK149. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

A century on, some might regard af Klint’s mediumistic methods with some scepticism, ‘but we need to accept the artist on her own terms’, Cramer says. ‘At the same time, we need to understand that her visions were very much informed by the times in which she lived; by her wider knowledge and reading, including her research into subjects such as botany, mathematics, science, theosophy and colour theory.

‘Af Klint’s art clearly arose from an ecstatic experience of some kind, in which the artist believed she received visions from spirits,’ the curator says. ‘But it is well to remember that spiritualism was also popular as a movement at that time: a set of shared beliefs that connected with new ideas about the nature of reality and matter, and ideas of the invisible.’

New scientific discoveries, such as electromagnetic waves and radioactive emissions, had engendered new concepts of space as being full of vibrations and frequencies imperceptible to the human eye. ‘Af Klint was part of modernism’s questioning of the nature of reality,’ Cramer says.

The artist lived an ascetic life, was disciplined, humble and a vegetarian, and while she never married she had many close female friends. ‘She was a highly intelligent woman and she pieced together many sources of knowledge from a wide range of disciplines which she brought together in her work,’ Cramer says.

‘Af Klint had a great sense of duty to her spiritual task, believing her paintings were intended to convey a message to humanity. The force of her art gives us a document of what that belief can produce.’

‘Hilma af Klint’s project was something much grander than what we today call “art”,’ Iris Muller-Westermann, who curated a landmark retrospective of the artist’s work in 2016, has said. ‘It was all about seeing the world we live in, in a larger context, to understand who we really are in a cosmic perspective.’

Or as af Klint herself put it: ‘Those granted the gift of seeing more deeply can see beyond form and concentrate on the wondrous aspect hiding behind every form, which is called life.’

A version of this article first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine

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