Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen – Review

Kandinsky may have claimed he had created the first abstract artwork in 1911, but little did he know that he had been beaten to it. As early as 1906, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) had begun working on her series The Paintings for the Temple (1906-15), constituting 193 predominantly abstract works. But not only did af Klint work in isolation from the European avant-garde, she also forbade her abstract artworks from being publicly displayed until 20 years after her death for fear of being misunderstood. It is hardly surprising, then, that her name has been replaced by the likes of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich – even if The Paintings for the Temple predates all of their earliest efforts in abstraction.

Group I, No. 7. Primordial Chaos, 1906-7; Oil on canvas, 53 × 37 cm; Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Group I, No. 7. Primordial Chaos, 1906-7; Oil on canvas, 53 × 37 cm; Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Af Klint was an outsider, but she was not untrained. She studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm from 1882-1887. After graduating she gradually gained recognition for her landscapes, portraits and botany drawings. But Klint soon abandoned conventional painting in order to explore the invisible worlds hidden within nature, the spiritual realm and the occult. She and four other women artist joined to form a group called ‘The Five’. Together they participated in séances to discover what they believed spirits wanted to communicate through images. In 1905, Klint received a ‘commission’ from an unseen entity to create her revolutionary body of work, The Paintings for the Temple.  

Af Klint’s series may be divided into further series and subgroups, and the Serpentine Gallery’s Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen opens with the first and final: Primordial Chaos (1906-7) and Altar Pieces (1915). It is a shame that we can only see the beginning and end of The Paintings for the Temple. Af Klint had envisioned Altar Pieces as the culmination of an installation in which the entirety of the 193 paintings would be housed in a spiral-shaped temple that she had designed (sadly never realised), suggesting that there may be some developments across whole body of work.

It is nevertheless exciting to see these unfamiliar but highly visionary first works of abstraction. In the series Primordial Chaos (21 of which are on display here) Klint explores the origins of the world, which she believed started out as a single unity that split into dualities such as light and dark, and male and female. Here we see the shapes of snails and spirals, signifying evolution, which are recurring symbols throughout her work. Symbolism aside, these paintings are vibrant: sometimes dancing, singing or resting momentarily. Whether you believe that these images came from af Klint’s mind or some unseen spirit, they reveal what the unrestricted imagination is capable of when it comes from an inspired artist (or spirit).

Group X, No. 3. Altarpiece, 1915; Oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 178.5 cm; Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Group X, No. 3. Altarpiece, 1915; Oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 178.5 cm; Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Altar Pieces consists of three larger canvases. Despite their size, they do not command attention and avoid being overbearing. The more you look at them, however, the more curious and strange they become. The satisfaction of looking at these works comes from the odd bits of detail you notice: tiny repeated circles, patterns of bicycle wheel shapes, and subtle brushstrokes within what initially looks like solid blocks of colour.

The rest of the exhibition looks at af Klint’s further forays into abstraction. In her series The Swan (1914-5), Klint integrates the images of a bird into her abstract world. Her smooth juxtaposition of geometric and organic shapes is particular striking, such as in No. 8, where cubes join together to make a circle with lines sharply pointing outwards. It is circular, square and spikey all at the same time. By No. 16 and 17, the swan has become a starkly simple circle, with semi-circle segments within it in contrasting block colours. But it is not as straightforward as that: a tiny triangle at the circle’s centre rewards the observant viewer.

Group IX/SUW, No. 17. The Swan, No. 17, 1914-5; Oil on canvas, 150.5 x 151 cm; Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Group IX/SUW, No. 17. The Swan, No. 17, 1914-5; Oil on canvas, 150.5 x 151 cm; Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk; Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

The Serpentine contains eight works from the series The Ten Largest (1907). The series surveys the four ages of human life: childhood, youth, adulthood and old age – although that is not necessarily obvious. They may be af Klint’s largest works, but these big, beautiful canvases are not overwhelming. Af Klint does not use the large canvas as an excuse to go overboard. The details from her earlier works are still present, which viewers can enjoy taking in at their own pace.

It was not until 1986 that af Klint’s work was displayed in public at a Los Angeles show The Spiritual in Art. Since then, this unknown Swedish artist has steadily been gaining more attention. Indeed, the Serpentine Gallery’s show comes off the back of the hugely successful 2013 exhibition of her work in Stockholm, Pioneer of Abstraction, which later toured to Germany, the Spain and Norway. Af Klint is still largely absent from early histories of abstract art, but if the recent interest in her work is anything to go by, change is in the air. We may need to rethink our whole approach to the history of early abstract art sooner than expected.

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016); Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016); Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: