Hilma af Klint: The Life of an Artist

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Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint was born on 26 October 1862, at the Karlberg Palace in Solna, Sweden, the naval academy where her father was based. She was the fourth of five children born to Mathilda and Victor af Klint. They were both staunch Protestants. Most of her childhood was spent in the Karlberg Palace, but during the summers, the family would move to Adelso, an island in Lake Malaren, near Stockholm. Here Hilma’s fascination with nature and organic life began here. In 1880 she attended the Technical School. Where she studied classical portraiture under the supervision of the artist Kerstin Cardon.

Around this time, she became a committed vegetarian, usually wore black and developed an interest in the spiritual and the occult. At the age of 20 in 1882, Hilma enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. She was one of the first women to do so and spent the next five years studying drawing, portraiture and landscape painting. She graduated with honours and was awarded a studio in the Academy’s “Atelier Building”, in Stockholm’s artist quarter.

Links with Spiritualism

In 1896 she joined the Edelweiss Society but left soon after with four other like-minded women artists. They founded the “Friday Group”, also known as “The Five”. The Five met for spiritual meetings, meditation and séances. The medium, Sigrid Hedman, one of the five, led exercises in automatic writing. This was decades before the Surrealists would use automatic drawing to generate their ideas. In 1904 Hilma af Klint’s work profoundly changed after an otherworldly experience. During a séance, she claimed to have heard a voice telling her to make paintings ‘on an astral plane’.

First Abstract Paintings

So, in November 1906 at age 44, Hilma af Klint began creating, ‘The Paintings for the Temple.’ The works comprised several series of paintings on various themes. The first group was called Primordial Chaos and consisted of twenty-six small pictures. They break free entirely from representation, combining geometric shapes such as spirals with dynamic brushstrokes, letters of the alphabet and symbols. It was a conscious decision on her part to keep these works secret She only showed them to a small, very select group of friends.

Hilma af Klint shared an interest in the spiritual with the other pioneers of abstract art including Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian. Like Hilma af Klint they were drawn to Theosophy, which opened a route towards a new world of spiritual reality. Rather than merely depicting visual impressions of the world around them. Had she not kept her abstract work secret she would surely have held the accolade of producing the world’s first abstract paintings. Instead, Kandinsky’s paintings of 1911 would, until recently, came to be recognised as the first abstract works of art.

Hilma af Klint’s Legacy

On her death Hilma af Klint left more than 1,200 works of art. Most had only been seen by a handful of people. In her notebooks she stipulated her work should not be publicly displayed until at least 20 years after her death. Hilma af Klint had no contact with the modern movements of her time. Yet is now considered to be a pioneer of abstract art. Her first abstract painting was created in 1906, and pre-dated Kandinsky’s by five years. In 2013 the Modern Museum in Stockholm hosted the first exhibition of her work.

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