Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944) the unknown swede was a woman far ahead of her time. Producing abstract expressionist work much before Mondrian and Kandinsky and Malevich, so aware of this was she that on her death she stated in her will the condition that it wouldn’t be shown for at least twenty years. This show, wonderfully curated by Melissa Blanchflower depicts various series spanning over 60 years of her life and represents the stamp of approval from The Serpentine Galleries, Af Klint is the earliest artist to be shown in a one person exhibition there.
In photographs Af Klint seems free spirited and relaxed, born in 1862 in Sweden she was deeply interested in nature and botany, painting landscapes after she graduated from the Stockholm Academy of Fine Arts. At the same time as conforming to tradition she became fascinated with mysticism and the spiritual, forming de Fem (The Five) in 1896 whose object was to communicate with mystic beings they named ‘High Masters’. The notebooks that she made with de Fem show wild pattern, eager mark making and such dynamism. In her lifetime she made 125 notebooks, over 25000 pages of these expressive communications to herself.
The colour translates immediately from small to large in all the paintings. The series I most enjoyed was those spanning the cycle of life. In size and pleasing vigour she produced ‘The Ten Largest’ in 1907, eight of which are on show. A stunning testament to her very modern talent these works chart: childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. Her brilliant colour is juxtaposed with strong texture and line, which are all painted onto enormous ten foot bits of paper that were subsequently stuck onto canvas. Perhaps through lack of funds, I suspect another reason for working in this way, which would be easily stored, was demonstrated by the condition in her will. These enormous pictures were a very private but considered two fingers up to the conservative art world that she was surrounded by. Though utterly prolific in her output it was only in the 1980’s that her work was appreciated by an international audience at The Spiritual in Art show in Los Angeles in 1986 her wishes to be anonymous having been respected since her death in 1944.
Such foresight as a woman growing up in 19th Century Sweden must surely have been demoralizing and the death of her sister in 1880 would have been a hard knock for anyone to bear. Without this though, the spiritual dimension of Af Klint’s work would have perhaps been flattened. It was in 1904 that she received the commission from one of the ‘High Masters’ she talked to with de Fem to paint her most important work ‘The Paintings for the Temple’. These paintings catapulted her into incomprehensible modernity before anyone realised that this was something to strive for. The preview was so wildly popular on opening night that there was a one in one out policy as I left, who needs Friday night in Brixton when one has Af Klint at The Serpentine?
Painting The Unseen: Hilma Af Klint
3 March- 15 May 2016
Written by Beatrice Hasell-McCosh
Editorial Assistant at Arteviste.com