An Artistic Message for Humankind
January 3, 2019 11:19 PM   Subscribe

The High Masters warned her not to show the paintings to anyone.

She was one of the first women to attend the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with honors in 1887. Like most other working artists, she produced botanical studies, landscapes and portraits for commission. She worked out of a shared studio in Stockholm and traveled through Europe to peddle her wares.

Beyond painting, she had always had an interest in spirituality. She attended séances regularly, especially after her sister died when she was 18. Her curiosity led her to study science, philosophy, religion and mysticism. In 1896, she co-founded a spiritual group of five women who met on Fridays called the "Friday Group" or "the Five". Working as mediums, they received messages from supernatural beings they called "the High Masters," recording these messages via automatic writing/drawing across several notebooks.

During one séance in 1903, two spirits communicated their need for a temple filled with paintings. About 2 years later, in January 1906, the spirits chose her to create the artwork for this temple. The commission was to produce "an artistic message for humankind." At age 43, she began work on this lofty project, "Paintings for the Temple."

Leaning on 10 years of séances with the Five and 15 years as a working artist, she went beyond the normal boundaries of art to try to communicate the essence of the spirit world. What had begun as loose scribblings during séances quickly evolved into complex symbology and a philosophy of expressionism. For the next two years she worked like mad, producing her largest and finest works.

The paintings were unlike anything anyone had seen before and she wasn't entirely sure where they were coming from. "What is the message that these paintings convey?" she asked herself. For the rest of her life, she searched for an answer to this question. Philosophical writings, religious documents and spiritual movements all left her unsatisfied. She painted these paintings for the temple in secret, uncertain how the world would view her efforts.

By 1908, she was desperate to have her paintings critiqued. Despite a warning from the High Masters, she decided to invite the esteemed polymath, Rudolf Steiner, to her studio. More of a philosopher than art critic, Steiner was flummoxed by what he saw. He advised her to "give up otherworldliness" and instead follow her own intuition. He said she should wait fifty years before trying to exhibit her paintings because the world wasn't ready to see them.

For the next four years, she abandoned the project and produced almost no work at all. When she returned to it in 1912, she no longer relied on spiritual guidance from the High Masters. The final painting of the series was completed in 1915. In all, "Paintings for the Temple" contains 193 paintings and several notebooks full of sketches, ideas and spiritual concepts.

In 1944 she died at 82, leaving behind 1,300 non-figurative paintings that had never been shown to outsiders and more than 125 notebooks and sketchbooks. In her will, she specified her life's work should be kept secret for at least 20 years after her death.

Her name was Hilda af Klint. She was the first abstract artist, predating Kandinsky by 5 years.

Her descendants waited 20 years before attempting to share her work. In 1966, no museum or gallery was interested in showing her work. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the public first saw her paintings.

More than 110 years after she created the first abstract painting, Hilda af Klint now has her first major solo exhibition in the U.S. If you are visiting New York, don't miss Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum, open until April 23, 2019.
posted by lubujackson (11 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
If painting was her way of processing and achieving evolution of the spirit, it is interesting to see just how much of her work seems to contain somewhat cellular/microbial symbolism. It's beautiful.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:50 PM on January 3

A museum dedicated to her work, with a building designed by Snøhetta, is planned at the Anthroposophical center of Järna south of Stockholm. Zoning conflicts and family politics are holding up construction though.
posted by St. Oops at 11:52 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

And in reading the description for the Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim, I see now that the correct term for what I was referring to is "biomorphic"?
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:53 PM on January 3

Hilda is fascinating. Åsa Kleveland not so much.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:55 PM on January 3

It is interesting to see Af Klint being 'discovered' over the years. I saw a retrospective in The Hague in 1987 and from then on I encountered her work once in a while. There was a small representation of her work at the last Dokumenta, but one of the surprises was that her work was shown together with work by Sedje Hemon. This small exhibit was one of the highlights of Dokumenta for me.
posted by ouke at 12:11 AM on January 4

The Guggenheim show is spectacular for anyone wondering if it's worth taking in. Saturday evenings at the Gugg are free (though you should arrive early because there's usually a long line though it moves pretty quickly).
posted by kokaku at 12:37 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I saw the Klint show at Guggenheim recently, it's deep and fascinating.
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:48 AM on January 4

Amazing work--thanks for posting it. People sometimes, e.g. here, make similar comparisons to Kandinsky regarding Georgiana Houghton, but she's also interesting in this context as another artist inspired by spiritualism/séances/etc. More links here.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:11 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

This is super cool and I hope I get to see it in person someday.
posted by odinsdream at 7:32 PM on January 4

The show is definitely worth seeing - being in the presence of the Ten Largest group is in itself worth the price of admission.
posted by codhavereturned at 9:57 AM on January 7

Not to detract from this lovely post, but I tried pulling her article up on Wikipedia and it looks like her given name was Hilma, not Hilda. (Or are they interchangeable?)
posted by Rhaomi at 10:16 PM on January 11

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