Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen

THE PHRASE AHEAD OF THEIR TIME is often thrown around but almost never accurate or meaningful. There have been only a handful of writers and artists—the likes of Emily Dickinson, Laurence Sterne, Sun Ra, and Van Gogh—whose work became deeply consonant with the culture long after its completion. For instance, Sterne’s metafictional Tristram Shandy is a twentieth-century novel published in the middle of the eighteenth; the compressed grammar and linguistic materiality of Dickinson’s poems still fascinate Language poets. Add to any such list of visionaries the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint. Born in 1862, af Klint launched her career as a painter of flowers and landscapes, but in the early 1900s her immersion in spiritualism, particularly theosophy, transformed her notion of what art might depict. During a 1904 séance with four other women artists, she received what she believed was a “commission” to represent “the immortal aspects of man” by painting “on the astral plane.” She began a large body of work, whose suitably ethereal name—“Paintings for the Temple”—included several smaller groups with equally enigmatic titles such as “Primordial Chaos” and “The Ten Largest.” However suggestive, the monikers could hardly have prepared her contemporaries for imagery so radically abstract. In fact, a strong case can be made that af Klint was the first truly non-representational artist—an argument that counters abstraction’s frequently cited start date of 1911, laid down by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In numerous paintings she made, beginning in 1906, af Klint combined symbolic, biomorphic, and geometric shapes, along with text, on a decidedly flat picture plane. These works anticipate nearly every artist—Miró, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee—who would come to define the movement.

Any one of af Klint’s images would be at home in a Chelsea gallery today. Despite her strong religious intent, her abstraction is infused with an airy (and very contemporary) playfulness that contrasts with the sometimes ideologically burdened imagery of her immediate successors. The 1907 painting Group IV, No. 9, The Ten Largest, Old Age communicates a chimerical domain at a time when Kandinsky, for example, was producing landscapes. Af Klint’s image moves: Her energetic composition explores the gradations of color and the nature of relational space as elements rise and fall, spin this way and that, and even seem to enact mitosis. This revolutionary painting wasn’t exhibited in its time; the artist stipulated that her work should not be shown until twenty years after her death, which occurred in 1944. Like Dickinson, af Klint practiced her art in relative isolation, free from the demands of the marketplace and established opinion. And like that poet (who is currently experiencing another round of renewed attention), her time was not her own, but ours.

Hilma af Klint, Group IV, No. 9, The Ten Largest, Old Age, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 10' 6" × 7' 9 3/4". From the series “Untitled: The Ten Largest,” 1907.