Guggenheim Museum, New York
October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019
As soon as I heard of Hilma Af Klint’s show at the Guggenheim, I started making plans to see it. Here was an amazingly talented woman painting abstractly in the early 1900s in Sweden whom I (and indeed many people) had never heard of. This show is the first major solo exhibit of the largely-underappreciated artist’s work in the United States. Her paintings and her incredible story were immediately compelling and I knew I had to see her work in person.
Af Klint’s explorations into non-representational depictions pre-date those of her male contemporaries such as Wasily Kandinsky and Piet Modrian. Hilma Af Klint largely kept her experimental style a secret from the art world, convinced the world was not yet ready to understand her work. She stipulated in her will that none of her work be shown for at least 20 years after her death.
As my plans to go to NYC for the show solidified, I watched a video on the Guggenheim’s website that further described the circumstances in which she painted these incredible works. Af Klint and her friends were interested in spirituality and the occult and attended séances. Through these otherworldly encounters, she was commissioned by the spirit of a dead man named Amaliel, who told her to paint these beautiful, innovative paintings in a unique style that had never been seen before. Obviously, this was a very intriguing woman. Of these paintings, Af Klint said, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.” (1)
The Ten Largest (1907) series of the Paintings for the Temple are the first Af Klint paintings displayed as you ascend the Guggenheim circular structure. It is also apt to note that Af Klint had imagined the paintings to be displayed in a multi-leveled, spiral “temple” with the viewer ascending upwards through the exhibit. The paintings are over three meters in height and two meters wide and depict an abstract, symbolic version of the cycle of life. The first two paintings signify childhood, while the subsequent panels represent youth, adulthood, and old age. The paintings are quite “feminine,” with lots of pink and purple, and swirling, floral shapes.
The exhibit also shows a number of Af Klint’s automatic drawings that she produced through her spiritual experiences with four other women, who collectively called themselves The Five. The women began producing these drawings, in which they would cede control of their bodies to a guiding spirit, in the late 1890s. These experiences with channeling the spirit and allowing him to guide her hand were what paved the way for the Paintings for the Temple series.
In November 1904, Af Klint embarked on producing her first series of paintings based on “the great commission” of her spiritual guide Amaliel. Primordial Chaos depicts the birth of the world and likely drew on her earlier work as biological illustrator. Organic forms and diagrams that evoke cellular structures feature prominently. The palette is primarily blue, yellow, and green, which to Af Klint symbolized female, male, and the union of the two respectively. Af Klint’s abstracted pieces consist of many symbolic elements and she detailed their meanings in her notebooks, some of which are part of the exhibit.
The later Af Klint paintings shown in the higher levels of the Guggenheim exhibit are more mystical and contain astrological symbols. One of the most striking is of a pyramid with the sun above it entitled Ah Hole Ah Hole.
Overall the exhibit is visually stunning and feels very modern and relevant today. Af Klint’s incredible talent and vision is profoundly inspirational, even if she was too afraid to share it with the world while she was still alive. It is sad to think that she barely took credit for her own innovative authorship and felt the need to give credit to a man who was dead. We are lucky to have the gift of her legacy and are left to explore what it means for the history of abstract art.
Iris Müller-Westermann, “Paintings for the Future: Hilma af Klint—A Pioneer of Abstraction in Seclusion,” in Hilma af Klint—A Pioneer of Abstraction, ed. Müller-Westermann with Jo Widoff (Stockholm: Moderna Museet; Oftfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2013), p. 38.