A few months ago I had the opportunity to see the Hilma af Klint exhibition: Paintings of the Future at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. This was a show I had wanted to see for a long time. If you don’t know who Hilma af Klint is, don’t worry she kind of wanted it that way.
After years of painting naturalistic and pastoral scenes in 1906 at the age of 44 Af Klint painted her first abstract painting. What prompted the change in her artistic style? Af Klint became involved in what was called “The Five”. These were five women who believed in “spiritism”, the study of the nature and origin of spirits. Af Klint’s interest in this came after the death of her sister in 1880. “The Five” often held séances and tried to make contact with those they called the High Masters. During these séances the women wrote a book of completely new mystical thought.
The High Masters eventually directed the women to create art for a temple that was subsequently never built; Af Klimt took on the task of creating the works for the temple. This is when her abstract painting began. Though her reasons and methods sound extraordinarily unusual, you have to remember this is how other abstract painters such as Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazmir Malevich would also produce similar works that were void of representation and similarly inspired by spirituality. None of which she was involved with or had contact with. Af Klint undertook her course of abstraction outside of her male contemporaries.
So, why do we not know more about her? Af Klint decided that the world was not ready for her work during her lifetime. She left all of her paintings and notebooks to her nephew who was directed via her will to not allow her work to be seen publicly for 20 years after her death. She died in 1944.
Seeing her work in person, especially The Ten Largest, the major paintings she had earmarked for the temple which measure approximately 7’.9” w x 10’.5” h is an unforgettable experience. Seeing these ten works together, side by side you can see the various themes running through them. She painted the golden ratio, the infinity symbol, grids, roman numerals, and astrological symbols to name just a few.
As I walked the spiral of the Guggenheim, I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect location for her works, all of which were supposed to end up in the temple. Isn’t the Guggenheim the temple of modern art? Isn’t it beautiful how the spiraling walkway mirrors her spirals? I also wondered if she was right. Maybe the world was not ready for her remarkable work during her lifetime.
Looking at the paintings and at the reaction people had to them I am still unsure if we are ready for her spiritually intense work, which carries an elusive message to us. Her bright colors, delicate lines, and hallucinogenic shapes reveal a stunning mystery that we are still trying to solve.