Hilma af Klint, a pioneer unknown to the abstraction

Hilma af Klint, précurseure méconnue de l’abstraction

Photo: David Heald, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
View of the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Guggenheim

The story is worthy of the legend’s most captivating. It has for featuring Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist (1862-1944), whose art was not fully revealed to the public that in the 1980s, abstract paintings in advance on the works of the pioneers devoted that are Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian.

Little or no exposed living, art, af Klint was also preserved in the market and, at the instigation of the artist, preserved in its entirety. At her death she bequeathed everything to his nephew with the instruction to wait for 20 more years, before showing the work. It was necessary, with the help of the nephew, the creation of a foundation in 1972 to finally fulfill the wish of the aunt. Since 1986 exhibitions in Europe and study reveal the amazing power of his work, make reasons biomorphic or geometric in color palettes, bold and bright.

The strength and the consistency reflected in this work is necessary in the exhibition that is currently at the Guggenheim museum, the first retrospective of united states, with 170 works by the artist, including a large selection of his more important production, The Paintings for the Temple (1906-1915).

Temple for the abstraction

The museum on 5th Avenue is a jewel, perfect in its architecture spiral echoing the will af Klint, who had devised a circular temple to house this corpus. Whereas, in the exhibition notes, the artist reflected, the catalog goes further in explaining the parallel between his plans and the command given to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright by Hilla Rebay. The painter of German origin, responsible in the 1930s to build the collection, wanted a museum in the image of a “temple of the spirit” and was unaware, however, of af Klint.

Under the guidance of Rebay, the Guggenheim would bring together one of the most important collections of abstract art in europe in the United States, models that would among other things foster the emergence after the Second world War of the first avant-garde movements in american soil, including the New York School turned out to be a leader with Pollock and Rothko. These examples are justly celebrated in Epic Abstraction, an exhibition also in progress in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Hilma af Klint, précurseure méconnue de l’abstraction

Photo: Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet
Hilma af Klint, “the Tree of Knowledge No. 5”, 1915, taken from “The W Series (Series W)”

More than a movement, abstract painting is a major phenomenon in the early Twentieth century. Often motivated by the formal research, the abstraction, in its infancy, had also referred to the philosophical and spiritual well-publicised in their writings by the artists who wanted to make a definitive break with the figuration, in the wake of the fauvism, the cubism and futurism. The works nonobjectives, it was said at the time, were the expression of radical thoughts, that is in phase with contexts restless (revolutions, wars, scientific discoveries). A radicality similar was the basis of the first abstract quebec in the 1940s with the automatistes of refus global.

Genesis spiritual

The artistic career of Hilma af Klint is in itself marked a clear break from figuration to abstraction. The exhibition reserves a preview of its production related to her academic training with landscapes and portraits in a style studied. Notebooks of drawings of the artist show the role played then by the actions automatic in the crucial passage. Unlike the surrealists, european, to the automatistes and Pollock who, later, have made a way to give their creation free rein to the unconscious, af Klint supported the technical name of a power external to it.

As with other proponents of abstraction in his time, references spiritualists permeate his work, crossing esotericism and occultism, its beliefs ranging from theosophy to the rosicrucianisme. With a group of women, The Five, she communicates with the spirits, which will bring him in 1906 of a voice on him, instilling the mission of making a group of paintings. What it’s doing methodically with The Paintings for the Temple, including the stunning results speak also the mastery of an artist.

The corpus is made of several series that scroll along the ramps at the Guggenheim, some of very large dimensions that would have required a ground work, innovative practice. Strict protocols underlying sets, which are patterned singular, a visual grammar to value of symbols, colors support also. The yellow would be in the feminine, blue is masculine, in order to join the contrary, a language of reconciliation.


The words ” evolution “, “atom” and “chaos” as well as the spiral patterns also attest to a culture of science, kneaded by the discoveries of subatomic particles and X-rays, or the theory of evolution. Sometimes in the form of diagrams, works of af Klint leaves, however, still detect his touch, applied, but to the wide and quivering, which makes it mesmerizing. Seeing more medium that artist, she conceived it, like its congeners of the abstraction that it has not known, that art, his art, would ensure the salvation of humanity.

Ignored the midst of the artistic avant-garde Swedish, to which the spiritual had no place to be, and even less in the abstract works of a woman, af Klint has held his art in the margins of the public. But even after receiving a comment désapprobateur of Rudolf Steiner — to which she had sought an opinion then that it was linked to the theosophical Society, she has carefully prepared the subsequent dissemination of his art, dictionary, catalog, and notes in support. It is thanks to this awareness prospective Hilma af Klint as the Guggenheim can now review the canons of abstraction, a history always in search of the myth of its origins.

Painting for the Future

Hilma af Klint, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Avenue, New York, until 23 April