Born in Sweden in 1862, to a middle class family af Klint was trained as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Hilma who many are now penning the pioneer of abstract art was all but forgotten until a few years ago, due to both her will, which forbade the exhibition of her work but also a greater tendency to undervalue women’s contribution to the art world. The mere discovery of her works created a major upheaval to the cannon of modern art. For those whose pen this major shift in art to men like Wassilisky Kandisky and Piet Mondrian, are just now beginning to re-write this history to an earlier time, (af Klimt began painting 5 years before Kandisky’s first abstract work) and to a different originator altogether, not to mention a female one. Her training in classical drawing and painting was used in her more classical work of portraiture and landscapes, this is the work that she presented to the public.
But her abstract work she kept out of the eyes of the public. Hilma af Klint practiced spiritualism, a very popular religious movement at the turn of the century that supported the belief that the living and dead could communicate. This was a very popular movement among the middle and upper classes, especially popular among women, it often created a space where the conventions around gender could be dissolved and explored. We know this belief was forefront in af Klint’s life because she formed a group of spiritualists with five other women, the aptly named De Fem (the five) in 1896. This belief in spiritualism, especially it’s challenging or dissolving of World’s between the living and the spirit realm both reflected and inspired her abstract paintings. Arguably her most prolific work was created from 1906-1915, The Paintings for the Temple a group of paintings that are, as explained by the Guggenheim retrospective of her work, “strikingly diverse, incorporating both biomorphic and geometric forms, expansive and intimate scales, and maximalist and reductivist approaches to composition and color”. The conceptuality of these paintings extended past the works themselves, af Kilnt had wished that her paintings be displayed in a spiral temple. The spiral, use of words, bold colors, unrecognizable but distinct use of forms are seen throughout these giant paintings.
When she passed away in 1944, the mystical, spiritual and abstract elements of these paintings must have felt like they belonged to another world for Hilma, for in her will she requested that a period of 20 years should pass before they be shown to the public. Although we can only speculate on these motivations, and although it took longer than those 20 years for the World to know her name, our understanding of her contribution to the redirection of art from classical to abstract, from a root in realism to a stand in the mystical, and the importance of valuing women’s art will be felt for lifetimes.