“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941
Hilma af Klint, born in Stockholm in 1862 was an individual who demanded the freedom of her own mind. While it was still mostly unfashionable for women to be trained in the arts, she studied at the city’s Royal Academy, graduating with honors in 1887. She soon established herself as a respected painter, realizing the power of her spirit and the elegant expression of her own hand. She had a natural talent for realism, deftly rendering figurative paintings. But her heart wanted free reign with authentic originality, and in 1906 at the age of 44, she turned to colorful raw expression. From that point forward, the ground shifted and her life was never the same.
A member of the Association of Swedish Women Artists, af Klint enjoyed camaraderie with like-minds. But the art world has a long history of male dominance, which caused Hilma to struggle to secure exhibition space. In fact, records show that she may have displayed some of her striking abstract works only once during her lifetime. Despite the challenges, she persisted, creating major stylistic advances ahead of her male peers, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimer Malevich and Piet Mondrian, well-known abstract expressionists at the time. They created their groundbreaking style, rejecting “reality” literally years AFTER af Klint had already quietly invented such radical new forms.
Af Klint produced ten massive pieces that were artistically and spiritually significant between October and December in 1907, calling them The Ten Largest. They “focused on the stages of life and humanity’s connections to the universe.” She was truly channeling spiritual energy into forms that had never been seen before. Hers is a magnificent story full of light, power and mysterious messages. She belonged to a group with four other women who used psychic abilities to create innovative paintings. In one of their meetings she was inspired to create The Ten Largest, to be displayed following a spiral path in a “Temple.” Coincidentally, 75 years after her death, The Ten were shown in a major exhibition at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City—famous for its unique art display surface on a descending “spiral path,” as mysteriously foretold.
Sadly, her work was destined to be misunderstood and cast aside by the power structure of the time. However, she never wavered from her mission, having ultimate faith in her art. It was then, in that moment of dogged determination that she made an important decision that would literally change the world of art. She of course, decided to continue her life’s work undaunted, BUT, refused to sell any of her art. She intentionally devised a plan to deprive the male dominated art-collecting-world any profit from her work. Upon her death in 1944, her estate was sealed at her bequest. She stipulated that her work could not be seen until 20 years after her death, and absolutely never sold.
Her incredible plan was successful and the majority of her work remained largely unseen until 1986—locked away in a storage room miraculously withstanding wide temperature and humidity fluctuations for decades. She was certain there would come a time when people would be able to appreciate what she had created and the story she was destined to tell. Hilma was right. Seventy years after her death, more than 1200 pieces were uncrated to reveal a treasure trove of unimaginable significance—finally receiving the much deserved serious attention that she longed for throughout her life. After so many years of being hidden from public view, the magic and mystery of her life’s work has finally come to light!
The amazing abstract body of work by Hilma af Klint has emerged from the musty crates in the cellar vault, confirming that she clearly predated any early abstract paintings by Kandinsky, the “Father” of abstract art. One big question remains: Will we have the courage to rewrite the story of art to place Hilma af Klint at the center as the true creator of abstract art? After all, she was the “Mother” who invented the movement!
“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”
The work of Hilma af Klint can be seen: in the extraordinary documentary of her life called “Beyond the Visible“; in the video covering her past exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York; and in the book called Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future by Tracey Bashkoff. In addition, you can visit the Hilma af Klint Foundation for additional and ongoing information about her life and work.
The featured image at the top of this post is called “Group VI The Evolution #9 – 1908. All photographs of Hilma af Klint works shown here were originally from either the Guggenheim.org exhibition or artblart.com—thank you for your generosity.