Hilma af Klint: The Original Abstract Artist (by Aaminah Shakur)

As I suggested, I would like to start posting some of the writing I have been doing in school because I do so much writing for school that I find little time for other writing. The following is a short biographical sketch I wrote for my Aesthetics of Geometry class, in which I was supposed to write about someone who used math in their art. 

Hilma af Klint was a Swedish spiritualist and artist whose work combined a great deal of geometric patterns and shapes. What makes her work especially important and interesting is that she was the first abstract painter, her most geometric and abstract work spanning 1896-1941. As a woman, and due to the nature of the work being such that she was not publicly showing it, she was not appropriately credited as the first abstract artist during her lifetime.

Hilma af Klint was born in 1862. Her father’s hobby was mathematics and she also loved math. Early in life she began sketching and painting plants and other natural objects. With family support, she initially attended the Swedish School of Arts, Crafts and Design and later the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. For a good portion of her life af Klint was well known for and made a living by painting landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and botanical guides.  The large body of abstract work that she did in private was hidden at her request. She did not feel that the world was ready for it and asked that it not be shown until 20 years after her death, which was in 1944 at the age of 82. She was still painting until at least 1941, and she also left behind over 120 unpublished manuscripts, journals, and notebooks with drawings.

Around 1879, af Klint began to be interested in more spiritual pursuits. She began to explore a particular type of spiritualism coming into vogue with other artists as well, called the Theosophical Movement and led by Madame Helena Blavatsky. Theosophy is a spiritualist teaching that relies on a mix of religion, science, and philosophy. By the time af Klint became interested in Blavatsky’s teachings, Blavatsky had traveled the world and Theosophy was fairly familiar to many people, if still treated with skepticism and charges of fraud. Some accounts suggest af Klint’s interest began due to the death of her younger sister in 1880, and other accounts say it came about through friendships made in the Academy. In fact, af Klint had already become a member of the Theosophical Society before transferring to the Academy of the Arts in 1882 and had attended her first séance at just 17.

Accounts vary again about the timing of the formation of “The Five,” a spiritualist-artist group af Klint formed with four other women from school. It is probable that The Five did not form until about 1892, by which time af Klint had been a devotee of Theosophy for quite some time and may have been interested in a deeper practice, and she served as the medium for the group. It is understandable that five artistic women would come together to explore contact with the spirit world and apply it to their art privately in a time when women were not taken very seriously in their pursuits. Although Sweden encouraged women to be educated in the arts earlier than other nations, women were still limited in their lives and ignored by the larger art world. Af Klint was quite demonstrably independent (much like Blavatsky) and this, combined with her love of both the arts and mathematics, may have led her to be willing to try out new things.

Throughout the 1890s, as a group, The Five engaged in private séances and automatic writing that quickly turned into automatic drawing and then evolved into automatic painting on the part of af Klint. The work started out in watercolors, small, either bright or muted natural colors, mostly abstract and including geometric forms. Others include animals, such as swans, in a study of duality.

Af Klint’s abstract paintings continued to evolve, the use of geometric shapes and mathematical principles evident. What is even more interesting is the sheer scope of the paintings after the initial series. Af Klint was a diminutive woman, not even five feet tall, but many of her paintings are 10 feet tall and seven feet wide. These paintings were done while she was in a trance state, and she claimed her hands were guided by Ananda, her spirit guide. And yet the images are mathematically and aesthetically balanced, the shapes are perfect, the lines exquisite, and the colors adhere to a Theosophical aesthetic.  Outsiders may be skeptical of her story of Ananda, but the work would be impressive even without that story.

Wassily Kandinsky has long been credited as the first artist to paint abstracts, and he stated that he began in 1911. Af Klint was clearly painting abstracts in 1906. Kandinsky was also a follower of the Theosophical Movement as well but there is no evidence that he and af Klint met or that she knew of his work. Still, it is clear that her work preceded his, but he would not have known of her work either due to her secrecy about it. At the time of her death, af Klint left behind over 1,000 paintings and drawings, including more than 200 abstract trance paintings that began in 1906 with a series called The Primordial Chaos. Only The Five, a few others from the Theosophical Movement, and perhaps a few family members ever saw any of the work before her death. Despite her request that her paintings be shown 20 years after her death, it was ignored by the art world in the 1960s and did not gain recognition until 1986 when they showed as part of an exhibition titled “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.”

Works Cited:

Voss, Julia. “The First Abstract Artist?” Tate Etc., Spring2013, Issue 27, p102-105. (EBSCOhost)

De Zegher, Catherine and Teicher, Hendel. 3 X Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing. Yale University Press, 2005. (Print)

Johnson, Ken. “The Modernist Vs. the Mystics.” The New York Times 12 Apr. 2005: E1(L). Biography in Context. (Web)

Bernitz, Anna Maria. “Hilma af Klint and the New Art of Seeing.” Avant Garde Critical Studies, A Cultural History of the Avant Garde in the Nordic Countries 1900-1925. p587-597 (JSTOR)