Rediscovering Hilma af Klint

Sep 19, 2021

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts during the Pandemic that these are strange and unsettling times to be living through. It happens from time to time that an artist’s work, created in another era altogether, and sometimes almost completely forgotten, can be found again when the time is right.

The artist Hilma af Klint is one such artist whose work is suddenly everywhere around the world. In fact, there is an exhibition titled The Secret Paintings that is showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, due to end in a week’s time. The irony of the title of this exhibition is not lost when considering that for most of the time, the exhibition has been closed to the public due to a long pandemic lockdown in Sydney. But, even for those who have been unable to see the paintings, the buzz about this artist’s work has been all over social media.

I first came across Hilma af Klint’s work last year in a random scroll through an Instagram page that is devoted to the work of lost or almost forgotten female artists’ works. The moment I saw her work, I was captivated by it. How could this artist’s work be “lost” when it is so beautiful, and as it turns out now, so relevant to our current times?

More than a century after painting these works, they are now coming to light. She was a Swedish artist who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1887. She was considered to have a great talent as a naturalistic painter (a skill that was admired at that time, especially in a woman painter, as women were not considered generally to have the skill and talent to paint realistically – a gross misrepresentation by men of women’s abilities as artists). If Hilma af Klint had remained a naturalistic painter, she would have found a place in the art world for her work that would have given her credibility amongst the male painters of the day. But af Klint wanted to pursue a radically different, very abstract and highly experimental pathway as an artist.

In the decades that followed, she produced what has been termed a “prodigious” body of artworks, and no artist at the time was creating work that bore any resemblance to af Klint’s monumentally scaled paintings that radiated colour and used puzzling symbols and strange biomorphic shapes (like living organisms). It is now recognised that she had a ground-breaking artistic vision that was, and is, like no other. One curious aspect to consider, is that even she thought her works were too different for the times in which they were painted, and left instructions in her will that they not be exhibited until 20 years after her death, she died in 1944. So, time went by, and the artworks remained “undiscovered” until the 1980s. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that the first museum retrospective of her work was held at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet – nearly 70 years after her death.

So, what is it about the works on display at AGNSW that resonates with our times? Due to the lockdown in Sydney, I haven’t been able to view the works in person either, but even in reproduction in the catalogue, and in viewing them online through the AGNSW website, their mystery is still very apparent. I am especially drawn to the series of 10 paintings titled The Ten Largest 1-10, Group IV, October-December 1907, presented in an arc, where as a viewer, you step into their aura because you are surrounded by them, and they are so physically large in scale. This must have been a monumental undertaking to even be able to envision them as works hung in a viewing space large enough to accommodate them when af Klint knew that in her time they would never be seen this way by her or anyone else. These works were painted with tempera on paper, then mounted on canvas. Tempera is a permanent, fast drying painting medium where egg or other very glutinous/sticky medium is mixed with powdered pigment to form the paint. It can be very temperamental to use, but is very long lasting, and was in use by artists from as early as the 12thcentury. The surface finish is light and thin – even deep colours like blues and purples have a kind of pastel hue about them. I think that this is what gives Hilma af Klint’s painting their ethereal glow.

I began this post by saying that af Klint’s artwork and specifically these 10 paintings, are right for now – how is this so? There’s a link between when af Klint was painting these 10 works and now. In 1907, the world was still freshly linked to a new century – the 20thcentury. Innovation was definitely underway in both painting styles and painting practices in Europe. Cubism and Fauvism in particular were highly experimental for the ways that each movement perceived space-time as fragmented (Cubism) and colour as arbitrary, divorced from pure description (Fauvism). But the world was not a harmonious place. Even though these artists were experimenting for their own purposes, there was a restlessness about the world due to tensions in political alliances and ideologies. It would only be a short 7 years before World War 1 would break out across Europe.

Hilma af Klint is painting in these troubling times. We live today in a world that is troubled – climate change, the Pandemic, unrest and conflict are daily reminders that human beings face what can sometimes seem like insurmountable challenges. Art has always had a way of connecting us to optimism and hope when life looks tough and stranded in negativity. I think this is what audiences are seeing in af Klint’s artworks. They have been variously described as mystical, spiritual, other-worldly, symbolic and intriguing. As a viewer, I think you can take from the works what most suits your own beliefs, thoughts or feelings. The paintings are definitely an enigmatic (strangely mysterious) balm for our collective worries about our world. Perhaps it is because we don’t really understand them, yet really want to, that they work as a quieting sense of energy.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales catalogue states that the allure of the “secret” is a key part of what makes af Klint’s work so intriguing to today’s art viewers. We don’t really know or truly understand her use of symbols, or the mysterious cursive writing style that isn’t a language, or the use of circles and spirals, flower and seed like shapes. But we can recognise the beauty in all of this – especially when it is presented on such a large scale. And mostly, for me, it is her use of colour which is strangely soothing.

Maybe Hilma af Klint needed to wait this long to present us with a body of work that encourages us to think beyond the now – to help us to stop and contemplate mystery and then to let it stay with us when we move forward. I’m sure that this is a very simplistic and personal interpretation of her life’s work, but sometimes a simple explanation can offer us a glimpse of other possibilities and that’s what keeps us going.

If this post has prompted you to explore Hilma af Klint’s artworks, start with the Art Gallery of New South Wales website to get an understanding of her work, then you’ll find it easy to google aspects of her life and work as the world at large rediscovers her visionary way of seeing her world, and ours. 

Wendy Muir

Art Eye Deer Teacher