The world’s first abstract painter was a Swedish mystic guided by spirits. Hilda af Klint wanted her work kept secret until 20 years after her death.
In 1944, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) died in Djursholm, Sweden, aged almost 82. Hilma stipulated in her will that her work, should be shown to no-one until 20 years after her death. Her work had barely been seen in her lifetime, just a handful of showings at spiritual events. Séances. Hilda left a staggering quantity of mystical, abstract imagery. More than 1200 paintings and drawings were carefully stored away in her atelier, waiting for the future. Also found in her studio were 100 texts and 26,000 pages of colourful visionary notes.
Her father, a Swedish naval commander named Captain Victor af Klint, took Hilma & the family to spend summers at their manor “Hanmora“. The manor sat on an island called Adelsö in the middle of Lake Mälaren. It was in these idyllic surroundings the young Hilda developed the deep affinity with natural forms which would later be the inspiration driving her work. Later in life, Hilma moved to live permanently on Munsö, another island, next to Adelsö, in Lake Mälaren.
Af Klint graduated with honours from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1887. She quickly established herself within the artistic circles of Stockholm as a respected painter, one to watch. At this time, she became deeply involved in spiritualism and Theosophy, and founded an all-female spiritual circle “De Fem” (The Five) with four other women. At their weekly meetings, the members of De Fem prayed and meditated together, and held séances in order to communicate with spiritual guides. Spiritualism and Theosophy, at the time, were very much in style in artistic and literary circles in Europe and the United States. The work of the now seminal “forerunners of abstraction,” the artists Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian were all informed by spiritualism too.
The five members of De Fem kept detailed notebooks documenting their activities at this time. From the notebooks we can glean that “The Five” made contact with spiritual guides, or at least they beleived they’d done so. The guides that appeared to the women were many and they all had names; Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor. In 1904, two of these spiritual guides set De Fem a task. The women were to communicate the spiritual world through their painting and to design a temple for these works. After completing purification rituals, Hilma Af Klint set to work. She was only member of De Fem to accept the task.
In 1935, Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter generally celebrated as the pioneer of abstract art, sat down and wrote a letter to Jerome Neumann, his New York gallerist. In the letter Kandinsky touched on how he created his first abstract picture in 1911: “Indeed, it’s the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style”. Kandinsky was blissfully unaware that a mystical and visionary female artist in Sweden was deeply immersed in producing huge series of abstract paintings way back in 1906, a good five years before him.
During her lifetime, she had just one single real public showing of her work, at a meeting of the 1928 World Conference of Spiritual Science and Its Practical Applications in London. The programme for the event noted that Hilda considered her works to be “studies of Rosicrucian symbolism.” She was likely showing this W Series – The Tree of Knowledge.
Hilda completed the first 111 Paintings for the Temple between 1906 and 1908. She’d finished them by 1915. Her intention was to build a “spiral temple” to house the final 193 paintings. Tragically this temple never transpired.
Part of the reason for our lack of a spiral temple filled with over 100 of Hilda’s transcendental and mindblowing Paintings for the Temple paintings was a conversation she had with the reknowned Austrian Theosophist and clairvoyant, Rudolf Steiner. Hilda met Steiner in 1908 and whilst impressed by her work, he told Hilda he was unsure and to be wary of the artist-medium way in which she was working.