I wonder if the exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future would have been the blockbuster it appears to be, without the Me Too movement. Hilma af Klint was an outlier. “I stood in front of the easel, so small, so insignificant; but within me flowed such a power that I had to thrust forward.” af Klint Her abstract paintings were radical, dominated by theories of the occult. Without the text provided at the Guggenheim, their “meaning” would not be indecipherable to most people. They are paintings that are coded with symbolism and influenced by Theosophy. As I walked around the exhibition, reading the text, I wondered if I didn’t have this additional background, how would I feel about these paintings, as paintings?
Af Klint attended Stockholm’s prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts from 1882-1887. She was one of the first women admitted to the school. In recognition of her abilities, the academy granted her use of studio in the city’s center. In the early years as an artist, Af Klint worked as a professional illustrator for publications on science and design. By the mid-1910s af Klint stopped participating in Stockholm’s art world to concentrate on pursuing her spiritual and abstract style.
Af Klint often incorporated color theory into her paintings. She used a combination that recurs in much of her work: blue and yellow. In the artists symbolic vocabulary, blue represents female, and yellow stands for male.
“In 1896 af Klint began to hold regular seances with four other women, who collectively called themselves The Five (De Ferm). Like other spiritualists of the era, the group understood their endeavor as a way of obtaining direct access to a higher order of knowledge. As part of their efforts, the women began to produce automatic drawings, a then common method of channeling in which mediums would cede conscious control of their bodies to what they perceived as a guiding spirit as images or texts were created”. – from text accompanying the paintings
If you google Af Klint, articles like, “Painting the Unseen” (Serpentine Galleries),”Spiriitualist Painter Who Pioneered Abstract Art” (hyperallergic.com), “How Hilma af Klint Invented Abstract Art” (Artsy) and “Hilma Who? No More” (The New York Times). How did Af Klint break from the tradition of representational art? Spiritualism provided a doorway. “The majority of spiritual mediums during the period were women, and many used channeling as a way to overcome society’s marginalization of their voices by claiming direct access to an absolute authority”. Guggenheim accompanying text
“The pictures were painted directly through me, without preliminary drawings and with great power. I had no idea what the pictures would depict and still I worked quickly and surely without changing a single brush-stroke.” Af Klint
Af Klint created The Ten Largest (which appear together in one room at the Guggenheim), between November and December 1907. These 10 ft. paintings, done on pieces of paper were produced on the floor in her studio, made in gouache and watercolor and completed within one year. “The Ten Largest” are a study of the four ages of man from a spiritual perspective: Childhood, Adulthood and Old Age.
The monumental scale of The Ten Largest represents another innovation – she envisioned displaying the paintings together “to create a beautiful wall covering,” which is exactly what they do.
In her will, Hilma af Klint requested that her work not be accesible to the public for at least twenty years after death. Whether or not we can still understand their meaning is questionable. She wanted to make the invisible, visible. Now it’s up to us.