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Study Visit Review: Hilma Af Klint

I first saw Hilma Af Klint’s (1862-1944) work in the Encyclopaedic Palace, at the Venice Biennale 2013. The curator of the Palace wanted to show that visual art could be magical, even divine and to present an expanded notion of knowledge and understanding. Outsider art was placed alongside recognised artworks and well-known names, exhibits included Carl Jung’s Red Book and Rudolph Steiner’s blackboard drawings. I had gone to look at Emma Kunz (1892-1963), an untrained Swiss painter and spiritual healer who made geometrical drawings. I found Af Klint’s paintings displayed on the wall opposite Kunz. I say all this because it wasn’t until this Serpentine exhibition that I realised Klint trained at the academy in Stockholm; she was a professional and skilled painter of portraits, landscapes and the natural world, before she began to work with abstraction. How come at the Biennale she was in the company of outsider artists?
Although Af Klint produced over 1,200 works in the first decades of the 20th century they were not seen in public until 1986. She kept her work secret during her lifetime because she felt the European Avant Garde would not understand her. Over twenty years after the first showing of her work in Los Angeles she was still missing from MoMA’s blockbuster show of 2012, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925. At the Serpentine these paintings, some over one hundred years old, some more than ten feet tall, with an unusual colour palette that delights the eye, are radical and mysterious; they speak to us now. I suspect that the growing interest in her work will eventually establish her as a pioneer of abstraction.

The Ten Largest, Group IV, The Paintings for the Temple series, 1907
The Ten Largest, Group IV, The Paintings for the Temple series, 1907

I am fascinated by what seem contradictions in Af Klint’s life. She was a professional, her subject matter was influenced by the scientific thinking of the time and yet she also participated in séances and automatic drawing sessions with a group of 5 women.
Af Klint was immersed in Theosophy, ‘theos’ -divine, ‘sophia’ – wisdom; a state of consciousness beyond the mind to a supra-conceptual, perception of truth. Researching for the study visit, I was surprised to discover how much Theosophical beliefs had had an impact on better known abstract painters such as Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, and Malevich. A paper by Kathleen Hall on the Theosophical website says that all of them “began with the symbolic representation of spiritual concepts, then out of necessity evolved into abstraction. It was an inevitable process. The familiar forms of the visible world were not able to express the cosmic realm. Only line, shape, and color were of use to the artist as a language through which the voice of the universe could be communicated. It was perhaps an experimental translation of Divine concepts.”
The last sentence seems to fit well with Klint’s approach, I often got the feeling, particularly from the early paintings that she was working out ideas and translating concepts through painting. Although the painting below is arguably not abstraction, the split composition, the colour palette and the drawingness gives this series of work its contemporary feel.
Evolution, No. 1, Group V1, The WUS/Seven-Pointed Star Series. 1908
Evolution, No. 1, Group V1, The WUS/Seven-Pointed Star Series. 1908

It was a small show and inevitably a lot was missing, in my view the later work on display, possibly more recognisable as abstract painting, seemed to be about statement rather than exploration, static rather than dynamic. Then there were the most recent pieces in the exhibition, a few small, wet on wet watercolours where she was looking for the essence of natural objects.
Untitled, On the Viewing of Flowers and Trees, 1922
Untitled, On the Viewing of Flowers and Trees, 1922

Mick Whyte (OCA painting student) send me a link to this curious book, Thought-Forms written by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater and published in 1905, where similar kinds of images are coded to represent specific thoughts and feelings.
There were 12 of us on the visit, with students from courses in drawing, painting, and textiles, from foundation to level 3. After the Serpentine most of us walked to the V& A to draw from observation with Klint’s ideas and images in mind. Taking this approach gave us a different framework for looking; putting accurate representation to one side we could respond to objects and invite whatever associations came to mind onto the paper. I hope those who found it liberating can carry on looking and drawing with this kind of freedom.
Extracts from paper by Kathleen Hall: https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/42-publications/quest-magazine/1446-theosophy-and-the-emergence-of-modern-abstract-art
Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, Though-Forms available at:
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Posted by author: Angela Rogers
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12 thoughts on “Study Visit Review: Hilma Af Klint

  • Matt Collings talks about her work and the ideas of Theosophy in his BBC programme ‘The Rules of Abstraction’ which can now be found on youtube

    • Thanks for that. I felt something similar to his comment about her work bring diagrams. I thought a lot of pieces were beautiful and intriguing diagrams. I’m not being derogatory, just showing my preferences. I think an elegant diagram can be more engaging than a well executed representational drawing or painting. The link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg3oQ_OqQ_o

  • I found this exhibition powerful and quite extraordinary. It was like receiving a transmission from a hundred years ago. I was struck by a sense of urgency, of her wanting to communicate something of utmost importance about the origins of the universe and the spiral of life.
    Then there was the sheer scale and energy of the work. Not just the huge 3-metre high paintings, which the exhibition catalogue “Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen” says she worked on “on her studio floor like a cosmic Jackson Pollock”, but also the number – over 1000 – plus the 100s of notebooks. And she kept working until her death at the age of 81.
    I wonder what it must have felt like to create these paintings in secret and never show them.

    • She’s a wonderful example of someone continuing to produce and explore throughout her life. I listened to Ron Haselden talking about having more ideas and being more productive as he got older, he’s his seventies. He’s exhibiting light drawings by old people in an installation at Fabrica during the Brighton Festival. Here’s a link http://fabrica.org.uk/exhibitions/luminary/

  • Thank you for a very stimulating day Angela. The paintings were extremely interesting as a very intimate testimony from an artist expressing her search for answers to the fundamental questions which have preoccupied humanity since the dawn of time: Where do we come from? What are we? What is our place in the universe?

  • This was my first study visit, wonderful exhibition and the V and A visit after, chatting with the other students was thoroughly enjoyable and relevant to my learning studies. I’ve since been to my second visit and hope to continue…

  • Just in case there’s some confusion, the drawingdialogue replies are from me, Angela Rogers, the tutor who led the study visit.
    A comment for other tutors leading study visits – looking at work followed by doing, in this case drawing at the V and A, seemed to work well.

    • I agree. The fact that we enter somewhere else to draw, rather than drawing Hilma af Klint’s work directly helped to see and draw as Hilma af Klint saw, rather than what she drew. I’m not sure I really knew what I was doing, but it was freeing. I think it was something to do with being attracted to and seeing shapes and colours and symbols that I might not have noticed before.

    • Thanks Alison, this is new to me, I wonder if she made drawings or paintings before these spiritualist expressions. It makes me think about contemporary ‘knowing’ and ‘unknowing’ approaches to image making, and the search for unintentionally, e.g. programmed algorithmic drawing and letting the weather or animals make a drawing.

  • It seems as if both Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint were both intent on communicating something, which they experienced as external to themselves. Something impersonal. When contemporary artists relinquish control by making “automatic” drawings what do they consider they are making space for or what are they hoping to happen? I guess there are many different intentions and many different results. Presumably all would be abstract. I’ll have to go and do some research!

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