Hilma af Klint

John Florens | Jul 4, 2023

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Hilma af Klint (Solna, Stockholm, October 26, 1862 - Danderyd, Stockholm, October 21, 1944) was a Swedish artist and mystic and pioneer of abstractionism, whose paintings have been considered one of the earliest known abstract works in Western art history. A considerable part of her work predates the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky and Mondrian. She belonged to a group called "The Five," comprising a circle of women inspired by Theosophy, who shared a belief in the importance of trying to contact the so-called "Ascended Masters"-often through spiritualistic séances-allegedly high spirits who wished to communicate through images. Their paintings, which sometimes resemble diagrams, were a visual representation of complex spiritual ideas.

The painter af Klint attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the main center of artistic education in the Swedish capital, but soon distanced herself from her academic training to paint invisible worlds, influenced by the spiritual movements of the time, such as the cross rose, theosophy and, later, anthroposophy. Her group was already experimenting, since the late 19th century, with automatic writing and drawing, anticipating the Surrealist strategies by more than 30 years.

Hilma was born on October 26, 1862. She was the fourth child of Swedish naval captain Victor af Klint and Mathilda af Klint. As a child, she spent summers with her family on their estate in Hanmora on the island of Adelsö in Lake Malar. It was on this island of stunning natural landscape that Hilma came into contact with nature and its various forms that would come to serve as a great inspiration for her work. Hilma would later move to Munsö, the next island after Adelsö.

Hilma inherited from her family a great interest in botany and mathematics, which was reflected in her art. She showed an early ability in visual arts, and after her family moved to Stockholm, she studied at the Tekniska skolan in Stockholm (now Konstfack), where she learned portrait and landscape painting.

She was admitted to the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts at the age of twenty. During the years 1882 to 1887, she mainly studied drawing, portrait painting, and landscape painting. She graduated with honors and received a scholarship in the form of a studio in the so-called "Atelier Building" (Ateljébyggnaden), owned by the Academy of Fine Arts between Hamngatan and Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm. This was the main cultural hub of the Swedish capital at that time. The same building also housed the Blanchs Café and the Blanchs Art Gallery, where there was a conflict between the Academy of Fine Arts' view of conventional art and the opposition movement of the "Art Society" (Konstnärsförbundet), inspired by the French painters of En Plein Air. Hilma af Klint began working in Stockholm, gaining recognition for her landscapes and botanical paintings, her drawings and portraits.

She was employed at the Stockholm Veterinary Institute as a scientific draftsman. During this time she had the opportunity to make numerous studies and graphic works about Darwin's Theory of Evolution. We can see in her work the terminology of this theory. He also divided them into series, as if he were doing scientific research work.

His conventional painting became a source of financial income, but his "life's work" remained an entirely separate practice.

In 1880 his younger sister Hermina died, and it was at this time that the spiritual dimension of his life began to develop. Her interest in abstraction and symbolism came from Hilma af Klint's involvement with spiritism, very much in vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her experiments in spiritual investigation began in 1879. She became interested in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy and Christian Rosencreutz's philosophy. In 1908 she met Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, who was visiting Stockholm. Steiner introduced her to his own theories on the arts and would have some influence on her paintings later in life. Several years later, in 1920, she met him again at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society. Between 1921 and 1930 she spent long periods at the Goetheanum.

Af Klint's work can be understood in the broader context of the modernist search for new forms in the artistic, spiritual, political, and scientific systems of the early 20th century. There was a similar interest in spirituality by other artists during this same period, including Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevitch, and the French Nabis, among whom many, like Af Klint, were inspired by the Theosophical Movement.

Hilma af Klint's works are primarily spiritual, and her artwork is a consequence of this.

She felt that the abstract work and inner meaning was so innovative that the world was not ready to see it, and she wished the work would remain invisible for 20 years after her death.

At the Academy of Fine Arts, she met Anna Cassel, the first of the four women with whom she later worked in "The Five" (De Fem), a group of artists who shared her ideas. The other members were Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson. "The Five" began their association as members of the Edelweiss Society, which embraced a combination of the Theosophical teachings of Helena Blavatsky and spiritualism. All Five were interested in the paranormal and regularly organized séances. They would open each meeting with a prayer, followed by a meditation, a Christian sermon, and a review and analysis of a New Testament text. This would be followed by a séance. They recorded in a book a completely new system of mystical thinking, in the form of messages from higher spirits called The High Masters ("Höga Mästare"). One, Gregor, announced, "All knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart, but is property that belongs exclusively to the deepest aspect of your being ... the knowledge of your spirit."

Through her work with The Five, Hilma af Klint created experimental automatic drawings as early as 1896, leading her toward an inventive geometric visual language that would be able to conceptualize invisible forces from both the internal and external worlds. She explored world religions, atoms, and the world of plants and wrote extensively about her discoveries. As she became more familiar with this form of expression, Hilma af Klint was assigned by the High Masters to create the paintings for the "Temple"-but she never understood what this "Temple" referred to.

Hilma af Klint felt she was being directed by a force that would literally guide her hand. She wrote in her notebook:

The paintings were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to represent; yet I worked quickly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.

In 1906, after 20 years of artistic work, and at the age of 44, Hilma af Klint began her first series of abstract paintings, one of her most iconic artistic series: The paintings for the temple.

The Temple works were created between 1906 and 1915, completed in two phases with an interruption between 1908 and 1912. Hilma suspended her pictorial investigations temporarily to care for her mother and left the neighborhood of her painting studio in Kungstraedgaarden. She resumed her painting with The paintings for the temple in 1912, finished in 1915. A year later, he painted the Parsifal series and the Atom series in 1917. As Hilma af Klint discovered her new form of visual expression, she developed a new artistic language. Her painting became more autonomous and more intentional. The spiritual would remain the main source of creativity for the rest of her life.

The Temple's collection is 193 paintings, grouped into several subseries. The main paintings, dating from 1907, are extremely large: each painting measures approximately 240 x 320 cm. This series, called The Top Ten, depicts the different stages of life, from early childhood to old age.

Regardless of their diagrammatic purpose, the paintings have a freshness and modern aesthetic of tentative lines and hastily captured imagery: a segmented circle, a helix cut in half and divided into a spectrum of lightly painted colors. Hilma af Klint's artistic world is steeped in symbols, letters, and words. The paintings often depict symmetrical dualities, or reciprocities: up and down, in and out, earthy and esoteric, male and female, good and evil. The choice of color throughout is metaphorical: blue represents the feminine spirit, yellow for the masculine, and pink

When Hilma af Klint completed the Temple works, the spiritual guidance ended. However, she continued to pursue abstract painting, now independent of any outside influence. The Temple paintings were mostly oil paintings, but she now also used watercolors. Her later paintings are significantly smaller in size. She painted, among others, a series depicting the views of different religions at various stages of history, as well as depictions of the duality between the physical being and its equivalence on an esoteric level. As Hilma af Klint continued her artistic and esoteric research, one can see a certain inspiration in the artistic theories developed by the Anthroposophical Society from 1920 onwards.

Hilma af Klint suspended her pictorial investigations temporarily to care for her mother and left the neighborhood of her painting studio in Kungstraedgaarden. She resumed her painting with The paintings for the temple in 1912, finished in 1915. A year later, he painted the Parsifal series and the Atom series in 1917.

Throughout her life, Hilma af Klint would seek to understand the mysteries she had come into contact with through her work. She produced more than 150 notebooks containing her thoughts and studies.

In 1908, af Klint met Rudolf Steiner for the first time. In one of the few remaining letters, she was asking Steiner to visit her in Stockholm to see the final part of the series Paintings for the Temple, 111 paintings in all. Steiner saw the paintings, but was not impressed with most of them, stating that her way of working was inappropriate for a theosophist. According to H. P. Blavatsky, mediumship was a flawed practice, leading its adherents down the wrong path of occultism and black magic. However, during the meeting, Steiner stated that af Klint's contemporaries would not be able to accept and understand his paintings, and that it would take another 50 years to decipher them. Of all the paintings shown to him, Steiner gave special attention only to the Primordial Chaos Group, singling them out as "the best symbolically." After meeting Steiner, af Klint was devastated by his response and apparently stopped painting for 4 years. Interestingly, Steiner kept photos of some of af Klint's artwork, some of it even colored by hand. Later the same year, he met Wassily Kandinsky, who had not yet arrived at abstract painting. Some art historians assume that Kandinsky might have seen the pictures and may have been influenced by them as he developed his own abstract path. Later in her life, she made the decision to destroy all her correspondence. She left a collection of over 1200 paintings and 125 diaries to her nephew, Erik af Klint. Among her last paintings done in the 1930s are two watercolors predicting the events of World War II, entitled The Blitz and The Fighting in the Mediterranean.

In 1920, his mother passed away. At this time, he traveled to Switzerland and met Rudolf Steiner again, joining the Theosophical Society there.

Despite the popular belief that Hilma af Klint chose never to exhibit her abstract works during her lifetime, in recent years art historians like Julia Voss have discovered enough evidence of af Klint making a real effort to show her art to the public. Around 1920, in Dornach, Switzerland, af Klint met the Dutch eurythmist Peggy Kloppers-Moltzer, who was also a member of The Anthroposophical Society. Later, the artist traveled to Amsterdam, where she and Kloppers discussed the possible exhibition with the editors of the art and architecture magazine Wendingen. Although the Amsterdam negotiations did not bring any results, at least one exhibition of Hilma af Klint's abstract works took place in London several years later. In July 1928 in London, the World Conference on Spiritual Science took place, with Kloppers being one of the members of the organizing committee. Originally, Hilma af Klint was excluded from the circle of participants, but after Kloppers' insistence, the issue was resolved. In July 1928, Hilma af Klint takes a boat trip from Stockholm to London, along with some of her large-scale paintings. In her postcard to Anna Cassel (discovered only in 2018), af Klint writes that she was not alone during this 4-day trip. Although af Klint did not state her name, Julia Voss suggests that her companion was probably Thomasine Andersson, an old friend from De Fem's time. Voss also stated that although the list of paintings shown is unknown, it can be suggested that these are some excerpts from the Paintings for the Temple series.

Hilma af Klint died in Djursholm, Sweden in 1944, at the age of almost 82, after a traffic accident, having exhibited her works a few times, mostly at conferences and spiritual gatherings. She is buried in Galärvarvskyrkogården in Stockholm.

The later period of abstract art by Hilma Af Klint (1906-1920) delved into symbolism with a combination of geometry, figuration, scientific research, and religious practices. Her studies of organic growths, including shells and flowers, helped her to portray life through a spiritual lens.

His individual or signature style was also marked with impressions of the scientific discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as influenced by contemporary spiritual movements such as theosophy and anthrosophy. The idea of transcending the physical world and the restrictions of representational art is visible in his abstract paintings.

His symbolic visual language has an ordered progression that reflects his understanding of grids, circles, spirals, and petal-like shapes-sometimes diagrammatic, sometimes biomorphic. His paintings also explored the dichotomy of the world.

Spiral shapes appear frequently in his art, as in the automatic drawings by De Fem. Although all geometric shapes, in this case the spiral, suggest growth, progress, and evolution, the color choices are also metaphorical in nature.

As one of the Proto-Feminist Artists, her style represents the sublime of art.

In her will, Hilma af Klint left all her abstract paintings to her nephew, Vice Admiral Erik af Klint of the Royal Swedish Navy. She specified that her work should be kept secret for at least 20 years after her death. When the boxes were opened in the late 1960s, very few people were aware of what would be revealed.

In 1970, his paintings were offered as a gift to Moderna Museet i Stockholm, but the donation was refused. Erik af Klint then donated thousands of drawings and paintings to a foundation that bears the artist's name in the 1970s. Thanks to art historian Åke Fant, his art was introduced to an international audience in the 1980s, when he presented it at a Nordik conference in Helsinki in 1984.

Hilma af Klint's collection of abstract paintings includes more than 1200 pieces. It is owned and managed by the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2017, Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta presented plans for an exhibition center dedicated to af Klint in Järna, south of Stockholm, with estimated construction costs of €6-7.5 million. In February 2018, the Foundation signed a long-term cooperation agreement with Moderna Museet, thus confirming the perpetuity of the Hilma af Klint Room, i.e. a dedicated space in the museum where a dozen of the artist's works are displayed on a continuous panel base.

Hilma af Klint's abstract work was first shown in the exhibition "The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985" organized by Maurice Tuchman in Los Angeles in 1986. This exhibition was the starting point of her international recognition.

"Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future," the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's exhibition was the most visited in the museum's 60-year history. The show was attended by more than 600,000 visitors.


  1. Hilma af Klint
  2. Hilma af Klint
  3. Cain, Abigail. «What Was the First Abstract Artwork?». Artsy.net (em inglês). Consultado em 31 de março de 2017
  4. «A Brief History of Abstract Art with Turner, Mondrian, and More». www.tate.org.uk. Tate Modern [ligação inativa]
  5. ^ Cain, Abigail (31 March 2017). "What Was the First Abstract Artwork?". Artsy.net. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  6. ^ Svenskagravar.se, omnämnd som: af Klint, Hilma, läs online, läst: 25 maj 2023.[källa från Wikidata]
  7. ^ (engelska) What Was the First Abstract Artwork?, Abigail Cain, Artsy.net, 2017-03-31
  8. ^ ”Om Hilma af Klint”. https://www.hilmaafklint.se/om-hilma-af-klint/. Läst 12 mars 2021.
  9. ^ ”Lasse Hallström: ”Tyckte det var idioti – nu tror jag på reinkarnation””. SVT Nyheter. Sveriges Television. 31 oktober 2022. https://www.svt.se/kultur/lasse-hallstrom-hilma-af-klint-film-andar-reinkarnation-tro-liv-efter-doden. Läst 19 november 2022.
  10. ^ [a b] Voss 2022, sid. 15.
  11. a b c et d Iris Müller-Westermann, Christine Burgin, Johan af Klint et Kerstin Lind Bonnier, Hilma af Klint : notes and methods, 2018 (ISBN 978-0-226-59193-3 et 0-226-59193-X, OCLC 1028908552, lire en ligne).
  12. (en) Abigail Cain, « What Was the First Abstract Artwork? », sur Artsy, 31 mars 2017 (consulté le 5 octobre 2021).
  13. Tracey R. Bashkoff, Helen Molesworth, Julia Voss et Andrea Kollnitz, Hilma af Klint : paintings for the future, 2018 (ISBN 978-0-89207-543-0 et 0-89207-543-0, OCLC 1039986487, lire en ligne).
  14. a b et c Claire Gilly, « Au Centre Pompidou, les femmes redéfinissent la notion de l’art abstrait », Le Monde,‎ 19 mai 2021 (lire en ligne).

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