Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mothers of Invention, Part 2: Hilma af Klint

Panorama of the paintings of Hilma at Klint, shown in The Keeper exhibition at The New Museum, New York City, in summer/fall 2016. (Sculptures by Carol Bove and Carlo Scarpa)

Hilma af Klint was an art school-trained painter and member of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm who tapped into her visions for inspiration. She lived and died in Sweden (1862-1944). The paintings you see in the panorama, as well individually below, were painted in 1914-15, but they were not seen publicly until the mid-Eighties. 

In part her invisibility was of her own choosing; she stipulated that her paintings not be seen until 20 years after her death. Later in the 20th Century I suspect there might have been a bit of an, er, problem with the paintings, since her abstraction predated so much of the iconic imagery of the hard-edge painting of the Sixties. Perhaps I'm projecting my political views on the issue, but I'm guessing that Hermann A. Klint would have had a very different trajectory. I'd like to know what you think.


This painting and the three below are from The Swan series, 1915 . . .

. . .  Despite the visions, Klint assumed control of her process and imagery. The idea that the spirits guided her apparently diminished the value of the work in the eyes of her more academic counterparts

No one realize how ahead of their time these paintings were until we saw hard-edge paintings from the Sixties (see end of post)

The details of the paintings are fascinating, and some elements emerge repeatedly. The propeller/mandala detail appears in the painting above as well as in the one below

Now we swing around to the far wall in the panorama that opens this post. The paintings here and on the far left wall, which you'll see as you scroll down, are from the The Dove series. In the curator's audio commentary (link at end of post) we learn that the dove derives from Christian symbolism--the dove is a the representation of the Holy Spirit--whereas the swan suggests something unworldly but not iconographic of a particular spiritual practice.

Below: closer view of the two paintings in foregrounds of this wall shot

A Swan painting and its detail, below
The geometry seems to have been ececuted freehand, Klint's brushwork painterly but light

This is one of several paintings with a bisected field

We continue down that far wall to the corner. The two farthest paintings, one of which is shown below, focus on the depiction of dimensional space . . .

Here on the left wall, selections from the Dove paintings. I am less enamored of the hearts-and-rainbow paintings than the more reductive works

So mysterious, with the depiction of space within the cube

That little circle in the center of this planetary shape?
It depicts two angels. An audio commentary (links at end of post) tells us that in Klint's world view--or would that be celestial view?--yellow and blue depicted female and male. Perhaps she was thinking specifically about gender, although in Buddhism, for instance, yin and yang is simply the union of opposites, like light and dark

Detail below
We learn from James Kalm's narrated video coverage of The Keepers exhibition (link at end of post) that this white ground was once silver

If Klint was the first to practice modern abstraction, and it appears she was, this painting also offers us a look back. How can we not see a connection to the 1445 masterpiece by Giovanni di Paolo, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise? 

You can see The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise in the Lehman Collection at the Met
. . . . . .

20th Century Echoes of Hilma af Klint

Alfred Jensen, 1975; note the occult markings in the corners

Kazimir Malevich, 1920; Kenneth Noland, 1962;  Jasper Johns, 1955

More on Hilma af Klint:
. Curator's commentary of the work in The Keepers
. James Kalm video of the exhibition
. Hyperallergic review by John Yau
. Serpentine Gallery, Painting the Unseen, Spring 2016
. Moderna Museet, A Pioneer of Abstraction, Spring 2013
. 3 X Abstraction at the Drawing Center, 2005


  1. Thank you for this. Great post. I like your phrase "painterly but light".

  2. Thanks Joanne - I love those detail images and your 20th Century Echos. Makes me wonder if her invisibility was of her "own choosing" or if she even had a voice back then.