Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction Moderna Museet, Stockholm February 16 – May 26, 2013
Hilma af Klint is the name on everyone’s lips right now. She is either described as a pioneer within abstract art, or as an obscure Swedish woman who had an interest in the occult and who also happened to paint. Moderna Museet in Stockholm have chosen to describe her as a pioneer within abstraction, and have tried to place her into the canon – together with Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich.
This spring, Moderna Museet is having an extensive showing of her works – some of which have never before been seen in the public light. I was a bit excited, as she has been one of these artists that comes up now and again. Exhibitions with work by Hilma af Klint are scarce; the last time I saw some of these pieces was two years ago, during the See Color! exhibition, which consisted mostly of works by James Turell, but also by Rudolf Steiner (who was an influence on af Klint), in Järna, outside of Stockholm. The pieces by af Klint worked together with the creed of the anthroposophical society, and merged into a very pleasant experience. That curiosity is missing in this exhibition.
Hilma af Klint was born in 1862, outside of Stockholm. When she died in 1944, her last wish was that her body of work would not be exhibited until 20 years after her death; or, at least that's how the story goes. That body of work consists of over 1000 paintings and drawings. In 1880, her younger sister, Hermina, died, and that marked a time of spiritual awakening in her life. It coincided with a mass-interest in the world that surpassed our material world; as a trend, spiritualism spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Séances, when people meet up in groups to contact the spirit-world, became common. The curator for Hilma af Klint, A Pioneer of Abstraction, Iris Müller-Westerman, wants us to understand the time in which af Klint lived, with its new technologies and scientific discoveries: x-ray waves enabled us to see through the surface of people and objects; other electromagnetic fields, that would contribute to the invention of the telephone, enabled us to communicate on a whole new level. In other words, it was a magical time, filled with invisible powers.
Hilma af Klint showed an early ability in visual arts; after her family had moved to Stockholm, she began to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. There she learned portraiture and landscape painting; the latter is a part of the current exhibition, together with her botanical studies. Of course, it wasn’t expected of her to actually become an artist after five years of studying the fine arts. As a woman, you were allowed to study, but afterward, you weren’t really accepted into the field because women couldn’t possibly create (insert sarcasm here). She met four other female artists with whom she shared ideals, and with whom she would also later work. They called themselves De Fem (The Five).
Many of the paintings that af Klint made were made during séances, but she always made them in different series, with groups and sub-groups, which then creates a complex system. In her Paintings for the Temple series, we are met by large-scale paintings, with a 60s type of vibe. The whole series consists of 193 pieces. My personal favorite among the series is TheSwan. In this series, we find groups of paintings of literal swans, but also paintings that depict, what I would call, the spirit of swans. The other connotation in this series is the concept of yin-yang, opposites that create a whole. Her work builds on the awareness of the spiritual dimensions of consciousness, and which can also be seen as an aspect which is marginalized in a materialistic world. She believed that a higher consciousness was speaking through her while she painted. She combines geometric shapes and symbols with ornamentation. Her multifaceted imagery strives to give insight into different dimensions of existence, in which the small and the large co-exist. This extensive symbolism is not really explained by Moderna Museet. This is kind of refreshing, but also disturbing. The small pamphlet goes through some of the symbols, but leaves it open for your own thoughts, too. I can imagine that if you haven’t seen the symbols before, it could be frustrating to try and understand what the artist meant. This is where the question arises of whether af Klint actually even meant for these pictures to be seen by an audience.
This brings us to the main focus of this exhibition: the re-writing of art history. For this show, Moderna Museet has posted an interview with the curator on Youtube, so as to explain why Hilma af Klint is a pioneer in abstract art; they have also followed Magasin 3 by making a special website about the show apart from the usual website, where we can see the message: We’re updating art history, it’s time for Hilma to become famous. But, did she actually want this? This ongoing discussion has spread outward from Sweden. Clemens Bomsdorf wrote in The Wall Street Journal about Hilma af Klint not being included in the Inventing Abstraction show at MOMA. According to MOMA, af Klint is not a pioneer in this field, and therefore doesn’t have a place in the canon; he points out that af Klint probably didn’t have the intent to make abstract art, and therefore was not involved in inventing abstract art. No one saw her work. This is a legitimate perspective, but was this actually a choice for her? And has she actually influenced anyone?
A friend of mine pointed out the other day that someone that paints large-scale paintings must have some kind of intent of showing them. And I agree with him. Her being a woman had probably a lot to do with her intent: wanting, but not able to have. Wanting to be an artist, but not able to be a professional one. The Hilma af Klint journey to fame continues; she will be featured with five paintings at this year’s Venice Biennale, in the Central Pavilion. This year’s biennale deals with questions of how dreams and visions are represented – how to depict the invisible realm and the imagination. The curator, Massimilano Gioni, has stated that af Klint captures how images are used to “organize knowledge and shape our experience of the world”.
In Frieze (Issue 135, November-December 2010), curator Liv Stoltz and the artist and critic, Ronald Jones, co-wrote the article Spirited Away, in which they go into the depths of Hilma af Klint: her symbolism, what influenced her, and, in turn, who she influenced. Swedish artists like Fredrik Söderberg and Christine Ödlund are among those mentioned, but neither of them are abstract artists. They are rather more like neo-spiritualists; this might be a personal opinion, though. In this article, abstraction is not even an issue at all, so is that really where she should be placed?
Abstract art is such a broad subject, and abstraction has had various different sources depending on what time it was created – not just spiritualism. And also, there are so many aspects of af Klint’s body of work that are anything but abstract: figurative paintings of people, flowers, swans – these can’t really count as abstract, can they?
While going through the exhibition at Moderna Museet, I feel I want more: I want to see more, I want to understand more. Why didn’t they choose to show her in a more creative way? To capture the journey of the paintings: from obscurity to limelight. They fail to answer the question of why is she important; they've written it down and they've said it, but they don’t really show it.