Hilma af Klint: the Spiritual Quest to Modernism

Saga Jaubert graduated from King’s last year with a degree in War Studies and History, and is now studying for a Master’s in Public Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. She is interested in international affairs focusing on conflicts and intelligence, and is passionate about feminist issues and their manifestation in everyday life.

[Featured Image: Group IV, No.3. The Ten Largest, Youth, Hilma af Klint, (1907) Source 2]

Hilma af Klint in her studio in 1895 (Source 1)

Hilma af Klint is one of those artists whose work seems to momentarily disappear from the public eye, only to resurface a decade later, thrust back into the limelight as a new exhibit gathers her greatest paintings to remind us that she is, in fact, the rightful pioneer of abstract expressionism, outstripping Wassily Kandinsky by five years with her ‘The WU/Rose Series’ painted in 1906. Having myself had doubts about abstract art (the my-5-year-old-cousin-could-have-drawn-that argument works wonders in debates), I generally raise a suspicious eyebrow at anything that looks as though it would fit perfectly into the MoMA; but as I began researching af Klint’s career, I found myself faced with artworks that, quite frankly, my cousin could most certainly not have painted. What accounts, then, for the fog surrounding her story – and for the gaps on her Wikipedia page? The following paragraphs aim to paint the portrait of a Swedish female artist whose aesthetic identity developed in the highly eclectic intellectual climate of the early 20th century and grew out of a resistance to compartmentalised gender norms and Swedish artistic conventions that bore a nationalist twist. Drawing inspiration from the bottomless well of spirituality, af Klint’s exploration of the collision of the material and invisible realms enabled her to produce some of the century’s finest abstract work which continues to inspire both awe and wonder today. 

Born in 1862, Hilma af Klint spent her childhood near Stockholm, whose serene Nordic landscapes served as inspiration for her painting debuts. After graduating from the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1887, she pursued painting as a professional career in a Stockholm studio that she shared with two other female artists. Most strikingly, she possessed a dual artistic identity: her public persona, that of a professional painter depicting landscapes and forests in a realist vein, enabled her to secure a regular source of income and exhibit her work in salons, while her abstract, theosophy-inspired paintings were kept secret and hidden. She had begun attending séances at the age of 17, and in 1896 she formed the group De Fem (The Five) along with four other female artists, who together explored their spiritual beliefs and convened to receive messages from supernatural beings they called the ‘High Masters’. According to af Klint’s writings from that period, one of the spirits (by the name of Amaliel) commissioned her to build a temple whose interior was to be covered in paintings. [1] Such was the intent behind her first abstract series ‘The WU/Rose’, followed in 1907 by the immense works constituting ‘The Ten Largest’, perhaps her most renowned creation, which aimed to represent the human life cycle. 

Let us set the scene. Sweden, 1880s – not the progressive, gender-equal champion that it is today. The Romantic movement was in full swing, under the aegis of painters such as Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn, who after touring Europe and meeting its best and brightest came back to Stockholm with the determined aim of setting up a national aesthetic. Swedish National Romanticism rested on two precepts: advocating a clear separation of public and private spheres and serving as a source of inspiration for nationalistic feeling. The former settled into the period’s artistic conventions and cultural mores among Swedish intellectual circles: despite rapid demographic changes and the emergence of a more liberal middle class, the Swedish intelligentsia remained convinced that art, literature, and culture were unladylike. National Romantic painters therefore set about redrawing the line that separated the public from the private sphere: the latter outlined the perimeter in which women were to perform their traditionally allocated duties, and was not under any circumstances to spill over into the public sphere, in which important societal responsibilities were taken care of by men. This came hand in hand with a renewed artistic focus on the ‘indoors’ and family life. Carl Larsson, who painted endearing snapshots of joyful gatherings in the family stuga (country house), stated that ‘manhood is what is needed, because art has to be creative; and passive, receptive women understand nothing of style when it comes to making it’. [2] August Strindberg’s comments on the incompatibility of creativity and femininity come as less of a surprise, but nonetheless reveal the hostile climate in which female artists sought to make a living at the turn of the century. [3]

This resistance to women’s entrance into intellectual circles developed in parallel to the rise of a strongly nationalist component to the Swedish Romantic aesthetic that often drew inspiration from ancient Norse mythology. Replicating the beauty of Sweden’s landscapes and the silent magic of its forests increasingly served as a patriotic outlet to ignite a form of national consciousness. At first glance, a proudly Swedish cultural movement might not seem particularly problematic; but it came with uncomfortable racialist undertones, during a time when certain European intellectuals fostered a growing fascination with the North and began spreading pseudo-theories of Aryanism throughout the continent. [4]

This prolonged historical interlude helps situate Hilma af Klint’s work within the societal context and artistic climate in which she evolved, and from which she sought to escape through the outlet of her spiritual awakening; however, she was far from being out of step with her time. She was part of the renewed interest in ancient myths and pre-Christian religion that swept through the West following the popularisation of theosophy by figures such as Madame Blavatsky. Many European intellectuals and artists including Kandinsky and Mondrian grew fascinated with the occult and engaged in various esoteric practices that greatly influenced their work. These people were not all away with the fairies, and their beliefs were in fact firmly tied to the early 20th century’s scientific discoveries: in 1916, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the concept of ‘spacetime’ fuelled debates among both quantum physicians and spiritually enlightened individuals on how to bridge the gap between the visible and the invisible world, between our material reality and what might lie beyond the limits of our imagination. [5] Af Klint’s contribution to the abstract movement in this highly eclectic intellectual climate is thus to be found in her quest for a remedy to these vertigo-inducing debates, through which she produced an artistic response to the social and cultural norms of her time. 

The first evidence of cultural mores seeping through af Klint’s work was her decision to exhibit her conventional paintings and hide her spiritual productions – a Batman-like organisation of her professional career that very much mimicked the public-private dichotomy advocated by National Romantics; but her engagement with gender norms and conventions exceeded surface-level constraints and took the shape of a unique artistic style which through colour experimentation, bewitching spirals, and geometric forms conveyed an alternative vision of human life in all its aspects. According to af Klint’s personal notebooks, genders were given colours – yellow for man, blue for woman – which acted as the common thread binding her artworks together. In some paintings of ‘The Ten Largest’ series of 1907, each colour seems blissfully unaware of the other’s presence; in others, they morph into spheres that gravitate in relation to each other in an atom-like manner. [6] Gender then dissolves into a wider attempt to unveil a continuum between material and otherworldly realms in a process which Susan Stanford Friedman named ‘planetarity’. [7] Faced with spheric shapes that could represent both celestial bodies in a galaxy and protons at the sub-atomic level, our perception of scale is blurred; lost between the macroscopic and microscopic lenses, the modern-day observer can finally understand the vertigo felt at the turn of the century as the worlds of cosmology and quantum mechanics collided. 

This fluid conception of scale extends into af Klint’s take on the reintegration of Norse mythology into Scandinavian art, and in particular of the emblem of the Yggdrasil. The latter was the holy tree of Norse mythology, a symbol of creation and universality that was believed to contain the cosmos in its entirety by connecting the underworld to the heavens and linking mankind to the gods. Af Klint was highly aware of the Yggdrasil’s gradual reappropriation by nationalists and proto-fascists as an emblem of Nordic superiority, and instead sought to reinterpret this pillar of the ancient Norse civilization as a symbol of human life. [8] In ‘Tree of Knowledge, No.1’ (1913), the overground part of the tree seems to possess a cardiovascular system in which two veins carry two different bodily fluids, one blue, and one yellow – sounds familiar doesn’t it – before intertwining at the heart, which in turns feeds the roots and connects the visible and invisible realms. The incorporation of theosophy to her social and political commentary against a backdrop of scientific logic is what lends af Klint’s work its truly awe-inspiring character. 

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Tree of Knowledge, No.1. Hilma af Klint, 1913. 

Hilma af Klint is also one of those artists whose career ultimately took a tragic turn. In 1908, Austrian theosophist Rudolf Steiner deemed her spiritually enlightened paintings to be of a too complex nature for the general public to understand them, and it is believed that his judgment was what convinced her to leave her entire collection to her nephew with the strict instructions that they were not to be shown to the public until twenty years after her death in 1944. [9] It was only four decades later, in the 1980s, that her art was rediscovered and exhibited in Western museums. Knowing the background story behind these monumental paintings and how spirituality acted as an emergency exit from day-to-day life suddenly clears the modern observer’s view: what may have started as a ‘what am I looking at’ moment quickly subsides into an inexplicable bond, an unspoken agreement between the artist and ourselves. Like a secret that we cannot access yet have a glimmering idea of what it might be about. 

I am beginning to think that there might be something behind this ‘abstract art’ concept after all. 


[1] Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Hilma af Klint’s visionary paintings’, The New Yorker, October 2018, accessed via: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/22/hilma-af-klints-visionary-paintings

[2] Jadranka Ryle, ‘Reinventing the Yggdrasil: Hilma af Klint and Political Aesthetics’, Nordic Journal of Art and Research, vol.7 no.1 (2018), p.10. 

[3] Ibid., p.10. 

[4] Ibid., p.17.

[5] Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Scaling planetarity: spacetime in the new modernist studies – Virginia Woolf, H.D., Hilma af Klint, Alicja Kwade, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’, Feminist Modernist Studies, vol.3 no.2 (2020), p.120. 

[6] Schjeldahl, ‘Hilma af Klint’s visionary paintings’. 

[7] Stanford Friedman, ‘Scaling planetarity: spacetime in the new modernist studies’, p.119.

[8] Ryle, ‘Reinventing the Yggdrasil’, p.2.

[9] Schjeldahl, ‘Hilma af Klint’s visionary paintings’.

Bibliography

The Guggenheim website: 

Ryle, Jadranka, ‘Reinventing the Yggdrasil: Hilma af Klint and Political Aesthetics’, Nordic Journal of Art and Research, vol.7 no.1 (2018), pp.1-25. 

Sandqvist, Gertrud, ‘Gåtfullt och strålande universum’, Kunstkritikk, 25 March 2014, accessed via: https://kunstkritikk.se/gatfullt-och-stralande-universum/

Schjeldahl, Peter, ‘Hilma af Klint’s visionary paintings’, The New Yorker, October 2018, accessed via: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/22/hilma-af-klints-visionary-paintings

Smee, Sebastian, ‘Hilma af Klint, the woman who painted the future’, The Washington Post, 1 November 2018. 

Stanford Friedman, Susan, ‘Scaling planetarity: spacetime in the new modernist studies – Virginia Woolf, H.D., Hilma af Klint, Alicja Kwade, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’, Feminist Modernist Studies, vol.3 no.2 (2020), pp.118-147.

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