A brief overview of the Swedish artist’s esoteric paintings
You may recognize Hilma af Klint’s works from their abstract shapes in bold tones of purple, yellow, orange and blue. Combining distinct floral and geometric elements, the Swedish artist’s paintings were greatly inspired by the stages of life.
Born in Stockholm in 1862, af Klint went on to study at Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, she began to immerse herself in spiritualism and Theosophy, a religious movement established in the late 19th century.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a key characteristic of Theosophy is the belief that there is a “deeper spiritual reality and that direct contact with that reality can be established through intuition, meditation, revelation, or some other state transcending normal human consciousness.”
Af Klint’s inclination towards this system of beliefs greatly led her to founding “The Five.” The group consisted of women artists who gathered on Fridays for spiritual meetings, wherein they would pray, meditate, and conduct séances, which included the practice of automatic writing and mediumistic drawing exercises.
During one of her meetings with The Five, “an otherworldly ‘guide’ instructed af Klint to design a temple connected by a spiral path, and commissioned her to make paintings for this temple,” according to the Guggenheim. This would subsequently lead af Klint to create 193 works, known collectively today as The Paintings for the Temple. Created between 1906 and 1915, the series of works is recognized today as one of the first examples of western abstract art.
In 1907, af Klint painted a series of 10 works titled The Ten Largest, which demonstrate her interpretations of the messages she believed to have been receiving. The works display connection to the universe through recognizable shapes and patterns such as flowers, cells, eggs, and orbs.
The paintings, which resemble both diagrams and art, draw from science, botany, geometry, and colour theory, offering a glimpse at the way in which everything is connected. Af Klint’s contrasting use of holistic and scientific symbols display the artist’s methodical, yet almost “radical” and abstract approach to artmaking.
Aside from af Klint’s revelatory works, what is remarkable about her practice is how contemporary it feels. The works merge spirituality and science in a way that is seamless, aesthetically pleasing, and that manages to feel relevant today.
As stated by artist R.H. Quaytman in the Hilma af Klint catalogue published by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, “If you . . . didn’t know anything, you’d think these paintings were made ten or twenty years ago. You would not know how old they were. And what’s so thrilling about her work, I find, is how contemporary it feels.”
It is outstanding that works created over a century ago are still pertinent in our age. Perhaps af Klint’s revelations offered her a glimpse into the future.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam-Woo.