It was one painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but it stood out to me and I took a picture of it. The label next to it said:
“Hilma af Klint, Swedish (1862-1944). The Large Figure Paintings, The WU/Rose Series, Group lll, no.5 The Key to All Work to Date
During a seance, af Klint heard a voice telling her to paint “on an astral plane,” so as to “proclaim a new philosophy of life.” Guided, she believed, by a “higher power,” she began to paint abstractions in 1906, very early in modern art history.”
Later, I researched Hilma af Klint further and a whole world opened. I was just completing a post on the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement and its relationship to the burgeoning feminist movement in the United States and now I was learning that Hilma af Klint was a Swedish Spiritualist who applied her Spiritualist beliefs and mediumistic abilities to the visual arts, creating some of the first abstract painting in the world.
Read Nasty Women Writers’ post: How the Nineteenth-Century Spiritualist Movement Gave Voice to American Women
She was not alone. There were many artists of that era, both male and female, who were Spiritualists and took their philosophies and interactions as mediums to the canvas, birthing the movement of “nonrepresentational” or what is now more commonly called “abstract” art.
Hilma af Klint worked all her life on her art. She was dedicated to receiving from her spirit guides what she believed to be critically important information about how the universe was formed and how it evolved. She considered her paintings to be teachings from the astral planes about the subtle forces out of which, though unseen, everything arises.
Through her painting, she strove to express and reveal to the rest of the world the underpinnings of the material world which, though innately spiritual and non-visible, her guides revealed to her in imagery they asked her to share.
“The body is capable of rising above its earthly ties by listening to the supernatural energies,” af Klint writes . . . In her notebook she adds: “I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development, and it is these possibilities I want, gradually, to reveal”(qtd in Voss 211).
Hilma af Klint was Queer. She loved many women in her lifetime, both romantically and physically. She was the leader of an esoteric group of thirteen women, many of whom were her followers. For many years they gathered and listened to what the spirits had to say to them, took notes and carried out automatic drawings and paintings that eventually became more sophisticated.
Hilma af Klint also had a philosophy of the duality of life, including the duality of genders. She believed a man could be a woman even though born into what was perceived to be a male body and the same with a person born into a female body being a man. She believed these genders and roles could be fluid throughout one lifetime, expressed uniquely in relationship to different people and partners. In the future generations, af Klint believed, gender would not only be fluid—rather the evolutionary path of humans was moving towards pure androgyny.
She wrote a book between 1917- 1918, called “Studies of the Life of the Soul.” 2,058 pages long, she called it the “fifth gospel” and in it discussed the manwoman and the womanman.
“I will begin with a side note of great importance. Many who fight in this drama are dressed in the wrong clothing. Many female costumes conceal a man. Many male costumes conceal the woman”(af Klint qtd in Voss 212).
Biographer Voss jests that it is no side note. It is what the book is about.
Af Klint kept meticulous journals about her mediumistic work throughout her lifetime. As for her personal life, she kept none. It is no wonder why. Being a Queer woman with groundbreaking thoughts and philosophies and a spirit medium at the time when the Protestant church still had full control of Sweden and psychoanalysis was becoming popular, there were many things that could get her arrested (homosexuality) or put in an asylum (visions and mediumship). Though we long to know more about af Klint’s personal life, it was probably best for her that she kept it quiet and undocumented at the time.
That no longer needs to be the case. Now it is time to celebrate Hilma af Klint.
The life and times of Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint was born in Karlberg Palace in Solna in 1862. The “af” in her name indicates she belonged to an aristocratic class of Swedish society. She was born into a family of mariners and mapmakers.
At age 10 the family moved to Stockholm where af Klint was classically trained in the arts at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. Being classically trained she began with traditional landscapes and portraiture. She was also an illustrator of many children’s books and was hired to illustrate a manual for veterinarians where she learned much about anatomy and the interior of the body including bones, muscles and reproductive organs.
Af Klint became involved with Spiritualist circles at the age of seventeen and soon displayed a talent for mediumship. She was taken under the wing of and mentored by Spiritualist Bertha Valerius (1825-95), “one of Swedens’s first independent female photographers”( Voss 34). Valerius, an artist older than af Klint, had fought hard, along with other Swedish women to be allowed to study art. A fight from which af Klint benefitted. By af Klint’s time, thanks to these brave women before her, women were allowed to work and make their own money in Sweden including in the profession of painting. However, many men were still vehemently opposed to it and spoke out publicly in hateful rants especially about women in the arts. Most prestigious art shows were specifically reserved for “men only.” Valerius also led seances which af Klint attended.
Somewhere around 1892 af Klint and a group of other women, including fellow artist from the academy, Anna Cassel, created a group of their own and carried out Spiritualist seances. They took turns being the medium.
“Af Klint first became interested in spiritualism in 1879, at the age of seventeen, while living in Stockholm. That year the movement, which had gained widespread popularity across Europe and the United States over the preceding three decades, took hold in the city following a visit by the British medium William Eglington.…Like other spiritualists of the day, the group took their endeavor seriously, understanding it as a way of empirically obtaining a higher order of knowledge. Accordingly, they carefully recorded their experiences, describing encounters with a series of spirits they refer to as the High Masters”(Horowitz in PFF 129).
There are many notebooks from this time period, Gregor’s Book 1 and Gregor’s Book 2, covering 1896-1902, Clemens’ Book 1903-1905 and the The Five Books, entitled D.F.’s Book 1897-1907.
Out of this group of thirteen it is said af Klint was most proficient at mediumship and it is within this group that she received her orders for a series of paintings to be delivered to her via spirit transmission:
“The notebooks from 1904 took on a different tone when Hilma af Klint received a premonition via Ananda that she would complete paintings from the astral plane. These were to be paintings depicting the immortal aspects of humanity, aspects that survive after death. In the summer of 1905, she was summoned to prepare herself to convey a message. The names Amaliel, Ester and George were mentioned, and she was instructed to take part in building the ‘New Building’, also called the ‘Temple’ in the service of the mystical spirits”(Fant 27).
Af Klint was initiated through a purification ritual where she let go of her own ego to allow what was wanting to move through her to come through unimpeded. She was to take one year to complete the commission which was called The Paintings for the Temple. It would take her nine years.
Erik af Klint, Hilma af Klint’s nephew who knew her well and to whom she left all her works upon her death, reveals that at this time in 1905 Hilma af Klint also developed the ability to heal people via hands on healing. Other extraordinary powers came later. This was corroborated by a third hand account of someone who knew a person healed by af Klint.
In 1906 Hilma af Klint aged 43 dedicated herself to “the commission.” Painting a total of 193 works by the time it was completed in 1915. These are The Paintings for the Temple. Made up of a collection of themed cycles separated into separate “series” ranging in subject from childhood, adulthood and elderhood to evolution, Eros and the Seven Pointed Star.
Af Klint let herself paint what was being transmitted to her and what she intuited from the multiple ways the information was coming through. Almost all of the paintings were nonrepresentational.
“I divined their dimensions within me (158 X 114). Above the easel, I saw a powerfully illuminated Jupiter symbol ♃, which appeared for several seconds. Then my work began at once, in such a way that the images were painted directly through me, without any preliminary sketches but with great vigor. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict, yet I worked swiftly and confidently, without altering a single brushstroke. Each and every one took six days, and I was instructed to keep the paintings out of other people’s sight”(af Klint qtd in Fant 29).
It is now well documented that Hilma af Klint began painting abstract before Kandinsky, Mondrian and others previously considered first. It is still not clear whether or not they had viewed af Klint’s art before painting their own nonrepresentational art. It is possible they had been exposed to her work. They had definitely been exposed to other mediumistic nonrepresentational art. Kandinsky, like many others were also inspired toward nonrepresentational art through their spirituality. Nonrepresentational art began with a deliberate attempt to paint or draw the spiritual. Later, when the Museum of Modern Art was opening in New York City and the founder declared he did not want anything mystical or by a woman, many of the early abstract male artists distanced themselves from spiritual art. But most began with the spiritual as their inspiration.
Af Klint was very ambitious and in touch with the art world of her time. She knew what she was doing was different. She could paint classically but she aspired to more.
She knew that she was stepping outside the bounds and believed herself to be working with the future.
“Many of the pictures she completed during those first three years [meaning the years of creating The Paintings for the Temple] are like little that came before in their degree of abstraction and bold coloration. Af Klint was not alone in finding a way to break from the strictures of the past through spiritualism. The majority of mediums during the period were women, and many used channeling in ways that partially, and imperfectly, subverted patriarchal gender dynamics. The practice allowed them to overcome the marginalization of their voices and disregard social sanctions by claiming direct access to an absolute authority. Many spiritualists employed this newfound social power to take on prominent roles in the realms of religion and political activism, most notably women’s rights movements”(Horowitz PFF 130).
There has also been a lot of confusion around how much af Klint showed her work during her lifetime. It is clear that she wished to show them but that she had a certain way she wanted The Paintings for the Temple displayed. She wanted them all together in a certain sequence in order for their message to come across well and not be distorted or misinterpreted. She wished to honor the spirits they were painted for. She really did want it to be a temple.
“She envisioned her Paintings for the Temple filling a round building, where visitors would progress upward along a spiraling path, on a spiritual journey defined by her paintings. The nature of that journey, like the spiritual visions that af Klint pursued in her paintings, involved a complex and idiosyncratic mix of religious and occultist beliefs, scientific concepts, and other intellectual trends of her day, which she drew from Christianity, Rosicrucianism, Buddhism, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and perhaps most fundamentally, spiritualism. Af Klint created The Paintings for the Temple as testament to the higher spirits with whom she communed and as missives of the beliefs she received, which she felt destined to convey to the world”(Bashkoff PFF 17).
Her circle of women helped her build a studio as a place to display all her paintings in Furheim which was eventually moved to Munsö. There af Klint invited people to come and see them in the hope to gain exposure and funding for her temple. These were secret commissions that very few knew about. Who was invited to the studio depended very much on who they were and whether or not af Klint thought they could appreciate the work. The dream of the temple was not realized in her lifetime.
Because of the struggle she had in her lifetime getting her paintings shown in the way they were meant to be shown, in her later years, she marked certain ones with a symbol to let her nephew know those were not to be shown until 20 year after her death. Af Klint assumed the future would have caught up to her by then. But alas, I think we are only now catching up to Hilma af Klint. Her 2018 show at the Guggenheim in New York City with its spiral design may have pleased her.
After the commission af Klint continued to paint, less as automatic painting and more as listening and being inspired by beings in other dimensions, her own channeling and interests in the natural world around her including mosses, the atom, studies in color.
The movie Beyond the Visible—Hilma af Klint, available for viewing on YouTube is well worth the watch.
A woman sovereign to herself
Af Klint had her own mind and pursued what was important to her no matter what was going on around her. She allowed herself to do that. She created the life she wanted for herself that seems to have been deeply satisfying.
The Spiritualist movement was a fight for autonomy. It was a form of resistance. It was always about the right to one’s own spiritual impulses. Eventually af Klint moved toward Theosophy and then followed Rudolf Steiner to his newly formed Anthroposophy. But she never stopped working with her guides and listening her own direct experiences with the supernatural realms.
There is much written about her interactions with Rudolf Steiner and how she showed him her work, asking his advice and hoping he would help her realize her dream of the temple. It has been written that he told her not to show anyone her paintings for fifty years but this has not been confirmed and is no longer believed to be the truth.
It interests me that she asked him to come and see her temple paintings when she was at the beginning of creating them and that he went out of his way to go to Sweden to see them. This makes me believe that af Klint was well known in spiritual circles of the time and respected. She saw herself as Steiner’s colleague and equal and wished to interact with him on that level. He responded to her requests but only in small gestures that left her very frustrated.
“Af Klint had never expected to be understood by the art world per se. She had no ambition to exhibit at the Academy or in commercial galleries. She was not interested in buyers; she wanted an audience of seekers, people who would see in her paintings an alternative, a way out of materialism and toward “new thoughts” and “new feelings.” She wanted to open people’s eyes to the fact that life did not have to be merely quotidian, that the world was larger than what could be seen, that it was mutable and subject to transformation. Consciousness could determine being. Humankind could connect with the living spirit that she thought united all beings, from fauna to flora and even, as she pointed out several times, the mineral world”(Voss 257).
Later in her life she was able to show her works in a series of lectures at the Swedish Anthroposophical society. These experiences were very positive for af Klint who was finally interacting with the audience she had longed for. But it would take many more years after her death before the world would fully appreciate the works of Hilma af Klint in their fullness.
Hilma af Klint is a Nasty Woman Artist.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Bashkoff, Tracey & Horowitz, David Max. Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future. Guggenheim, 2018.
Fant, Ake. Hilma Af Klint: Occult Painter and Abstract Pioneer. Translated by Ruth Urbom. Bokforlaget Stolpe, Sweden. First English edition. 2021
Voss, Julia. Hilma af Klint: a Biography. Translated by Anne Posten. The University of Chicago press. 2022.