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Invisible art: rediscovering the work of Hilma af Klint

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Kandinsky is generally regarded as the founding father of abstract art; however, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint may, according to art historians, have created the first abstract painting as early as 1906 – a whole five years before Kandinsky.

She is one of the undiscovered gems of the 20th Century. However, recent years have seen the artist become admired in academic circles and popular culture, for example, her work featured in Personal Shopper, the 2017 horror film starring Kristen Stewart.

As a respected lawyer, Kandinsky was adept at promoting himself and his art; of course, his ego played a significant role in his success. In contrast, Klint was far more humble, living a secluded life and never attempting to get her work into exhibitions, so much so that it took until the 1980s for her artwork to be shown in public.

Before dedicating her life to art, Klint studied Linnaeus (the Swedish botanist) and worked as a draughtsman for a veterinary institute. It’s easy to see how these roles influenced her work and how, in particular, they provided her with new ways of seeing the world. As Birnbaum suggests, “dig down into nature and into cellular structures and you find abstraction there. She was into geometric abstraction; her vision was to do with evolutionary theory [and] the biomorphic.” This particular reading certainly illuminates her paintings, but this is just one of the ways in which we can view her complex and intriguing canvases.

In addition to nature, Klint was also heavily informed by Theosophy, which was one of the first religious organisations in Europe which didn’t discriminate against women, allowing Klint to become an active participant in séances. Every week for 10 years, Klint conducted séances with four other female artists, acting as the group’s founder and medium. Her interest in the occult began after the death of her sister; what resulted was an intimate relationship with Spiritualism which sparked numerous “commissions” from beyond the grave.

In 1904, an entity named Amaliel asked Klint to paint on “an astral plane” and depict the “immortal aspects of man.” Following this encounter, Klint entered one of her most prolific periods, resulting in over 193 paintings between 1906 and 1915, now known as the ‘Paintings for the Temple.’ In her records, she describes painting as if possessed by some invisible divine force, suggesting “I had no idea what they were supposed to depict… I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.” Her technique has been referred to as ‘automatic drawing’, which emerged at a similar time as ‘stream of consciousness’ writing in the literary modernist movement.

Although they may seem commonplace now, in the early 20th Century invisible forces were all the rage. Recent scientific discoveries, such as the X-ray and the electromagnetic field, presented artists with new phenomena to try and depict. But how could artists portray the invisible? Klint answered this question by abstracting the world around her into shapes, lines, and movement.

Just like the invisible forces she was aiming to capture, Klint worked as an undetectable presence in the art world. Feminist scholars were quick to jump to the conclusion that Klint was excluded from the abstract art narrative due to her being a woman, yet her exclusion was, surprisingly, by choice. In her will, Klint made it clear that her works should not be shown until 20 years after her death, which occurred in 1944. Finally, her work was exhibited in 1986 at a Los Angeles show called ‘The Spiritual in Art’, yet it wasn’t until Stockholm’s ‘Pioneers of Abstraction’ exhibition in 2013 that she found international acclaim. 2016 saw her work at London’s Serpentine Gallery and in 2017 her work has filtered into the mainstream in the form of Personal Shopper.

In ostracising herself, she became her own scholar, composing several notebooks interpreting her own works, annotating them with the same botanical precision as her Linnaeus studies. According to her notes, spirals denote evolution, ‘U’ the spiritual world, yellow roses masculinity, and blue lilacs femininity; yet all coalesce to one certain aim: unity.

 

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