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
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
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
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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