Monday, August 19, 2019

Hilma af Klint

( Svanen (The Swan), No. 17, Group 9, Series SUW, October 1914 – March 1915.)*

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was a Swedish painter whose place in art history as one of the very earliest modern abstract painters is only now being established:

Hilma af Klint[needs Swedish IPA] (October 26, 1862 – October 21, 1944) was a Swedish artist and mystic whose paintings were among the first Western abstract art.[1] A considerable body of her abstract work predates the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky.[2] She belonged to a group called "The Five", a circle of women who shared her belief in the importance of trying to make contact with the so-called "High Masters"—often by way of séances.[3] Her paintings, which sometimes resemble diagrams, were a visual representation of complex spiritual ideas.
Why wasn't her work known in the past?  Why is she only now getting the attention she deserves?

The simple reason is that she didn't show her paintings during her lifetime, and stipulated that they shouldn't be shown until twenty years after her death**.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York showed a large number of her works from the fall of 2018 to April of 2019.  The two reviews of the exhibition I read are full of praise: 

Ben Davis:

I can’t help but agree with all the praise being heaped on the Guggenheim’s big Hilma af Klint show. It’s great, great, beyond great.
Assembled in a chronological progression up the museum’s spiral, the show feels like both a transmission from an unmapped other world and a perfectly logical correction to the history of Modern art—an alternate mode of abstraction from the dawn of the 20th century that looks as fresh as if it were painted yesterday.
It’s hard to quibble with the sheer level of painterly pleasure of af Klint’s sui generis style. So instead I’ll take a moment to focus on why this show feels so right for right now.

Roberta Smith:

If you like to hallucinate but disdain the requisite stimulants, spend some time in the Guggenheim Museum’s staggering exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” The museum’s High Gallery — the name has added resonance in this context — displays the show’s rapturous overture, a series of 10 paintings by af Klint (1862-1944), a little-known Swedish painter, modernist pioneer and erstwhile spiritualist. Collectively titled “The Ten Largest,” they may induce disorientation, not the least for the way they blow open art history.
These game-changing works envelop you in hues from dusty orange to pale pinks and lavenders, tumbling compositions of circles, spirals and pinwheels, and unfurling ribbonlike lines that sometimes form mysterious letters and words. The scale of the motifs and the paintings’ sheer size (10 feet by nearly 9 feet) invite you to step in and float away to the music of the spheres. That they are rendered in tempera on paper, lighter than oil on canvas but still quite painterly, contributes to their levitating power. In their wit, ebullience, multiple references and palette, “The Ten Largest” seem utterly contemporary, made-yesterday fresh. But prepare for label shock: they were created in 1907.

Do look at some of the photographs in the above links, to get the idea of the scale of those ten large paintings.

What's of interest to me is, of course, the question why art made by women is largely missing in all the art canons, including the Western one.  Smith addresses af Klint's role from that angle:

Her reappearance finally settles the question raised in Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” There have been, but their achievements reach us in circuitous ways because of the obstacles that plague artists generally, and women particularly. These reasons — so complex and individual — have to do with the nature of artistic ambition, the psychic and material needs that make fulfillment possible and the extent to which these needs are met by society. Some artists, in response, create their own citadels of rationales, systems and even delusions — especially when exploring abstraction, which society had not yet accepted in art.


*  This is not one of the large ten pictures, but part of her swan series.  You can see more of the series at the Wikipedia af Klint page.

** Although that is a sufficient reason for her obscurity in art history, it's not certain that she would have been less obscure had she exhibited her work at the time she created it:

Had Hilma af Klint presented her abstracted paintings at a museum or gallery during her lifetime, it is almost guaranteed they would have been criticized heavily. That af Klint made them at all is a testament to her successful navigation of the sexist world in which she lived. She chose to retreat from the male-dominated art world, find support in an esoteric religion that embraced female leadership and was founded by a woman (Helena Blatavsky), and present her work as having come to her through spirits (and thus escape criticisms of radical ideas coming from a female mind).
Af Klint is often compared to the artist Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), an early progenitor of abstract painting. Like Kandinsky, af Klint wanted her work to communicate a spiritual dimension. Unlike Kandinsky, she believed she operated as a medium for spirits and did not position her work specifically as a way of reimagining art. Like other artists of the time who were interested in similar spiritual movements, af Klint used art to understand existence and make the invisible visible.

Remember that her earliest abstract works were painted before the abstract works of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, the three painters usually viewed as fathers of modern abstract art.