Hilma af Klint: 6 Facts About A Pioneer In Abstract Art

Hilma af Klint was a pioneer of abstract art and a painter of the future. Here are six facts about the Swedish artist, who has gained posthumous notoriety.

Sep 5, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
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Portrait by Hilma af Klint, around 1900, via The Guggenheim Museum, New York (left); with Adulthood by Hilma af Klint, 1907, via Coeur & Art (right)


Though the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint has been unknown to a large part of the world during her lifetime, today she stands in a row with artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich. Hilma af Klint, who was born in 1862 in Solna, Sweden, created a total of around 1000 paintings, sketches, and watercolors up to her death in 1944. It was only a few years ago that the Swedish artist, a daughter from a noble house, received more attention for her artistic work. In the following, you will find six interesting facts about this exceptional artist of her time.


1. Hilma af Klint Was The Earliest Painter Of Abstract Art

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Cress by Hilma af Klint, 1890s, via 4Columns Magazine


For a long time, it was believed that Wassily Kandinsky had introduced abstraction into painting in 1911. However, we now know that Hilma af Klint was already producing abstract paintings in 1906. She is thus the earliest representative of abstract art and was considered a good observer. Her very early naturalistic subjects, flower pictures and portraits corresponded to the expectations one had at the turn of the century of a woman from a good family, especially a daughter of the nobility. 


While Hilma af Klint painted naturalistic scenes in the early days of her painting and filled her canvases and drawing sheets with flower motifs and portraits, she broke with naturalistic painting at the age of 44 and turned to abstract art.


2. One Of The First Women Ever To Study At An Art University

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Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future exhibition, 2019, via Guggenheim Museum, New York


Before Hilma af Klint started creating her large-format paintings, the Swedish artist studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Sweden was one of the first countries in Europe to offer women the opportunity to study at a university. After her studies, she moved to a studio in Stockholm, where she spent the first years of her artistic career.

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3. She Bears The Responsibility For Her Posthumous Fame


Hilma af Klint is still often called the painter of the future. This attribution could also be made by her herself. In her own will, the painter arranged that her works of art should not be exhibited to a large audience until twenty years after her death. The artist was convinced that her contemporaries would not be able to grasp the full meaning of her paintings. 


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Group IX/UW, No. 25, The Dove, No. 1 by Hilma af Klint, 1915, via Moderna Museet, Stockholm


In an article for AD magazine, art critic and biographer of Hilma af Klint, Julia Voss, explains that the artist marked many of her works with the character combination “+x”. According to a description of the abbreviation by the artist, these works were “all works that are to be opened 20 years after my death”. It was not until the mid-1980s that the works of the Swedish artist were first exhibited and appreciated in their entirety. A legend that exists about Hilma af Klint might agree with her opinion about her contemporaries: When her works had been first offered to the Modern Museet in Stockholm in 1970, the donation was initially rejected. It apparently took another ten years or so until an understanding of the art historical value of Hilma af Klint’s paintings was fully established.


4. Klint Was Part Of A Spiritual Women’s Group Called “De Fem” [The Five]

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Group 2, no title, No. 14a – No. 21 by Hilma af Klint, 1919 via Moderna Museet, Stockholm


Hilma af Klint had a strong interest in Theosophy and Anthroposophy. In the late 1870s, she began to participate in séances and to make contact with the dead. In 1896 she and four other women finally founded the group “De Fem” [The Five], for example, to get in contact with “high masters” in another dimension through the back of glasses. These practices also slowly changed her work. During that time, she turned to automatic drawing. Later she made it her task to depict in her paintings the mystery of the unity of the universe while in reality, it is visible in duality.


According to researchers, Hilma af Klint’s interest in the supernatural is based on both the early death of her sister, with whose spirit she tried to stay in contact as well as on a general interest that was typical for the late 19th century. An interest in the supernatural is considered a phenomenon of her time – a period, in which there were many inventions in the field of the invisible: the telephone, radio waves as well as electromagnetic waves, and ultrasound.



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No. 113, Group III, The Parsifal Series by Hilma af Klint, 1916, via Moderna Museet, Stockholm


In the years 1917/18 Hilma af Klint began a very intensive examination of the supernatural. This can still be seen today in her “Studies on Spiritual Life,” which includes the Parsifal series. This series contains elements that can also be found in other works of the artist: concentric circles, geometric forms, and bright colors.


5. She Designed A Temple For Her Works


The artist Hilma af Klint not only had the idea that her works should be withheld from the public until 20 years after her death, but the Swedish artist also imagined the presentation of her works in a very special way. Hilma af Klint designed a temple for her paintings, which the visitors should walk through in a spiral. From picture to picture, from series to series, they were to stride, right up to the top of the temple, to the dome, which was to provide a view of the stars.


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Group X, No. 1 Altarpiece Hilma af Klint, 1915, via Guggenheim Museum, New York



The artist was not only very impressed by the teachings of the theosophist and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, but she could also have been influenced by him and his emptiness in her idea of such a temple, but also by her visits to Steinert in Switzerland. It is said that it was the influence of Rudolf Steinert in the 1920s that made Hilma af Klint stop using geometrical forms in her painting.


Today, the Guggenheim Museum in New York reminds us of a temple that Hilma af Klint would have wished for her artworks. Fittingly, a major retrospective of the artist’s work took place at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Abstract Art, from October 2018 to April 2019.


6. The Paintings For The Temple (1906 – 1915) Are Known As Hilma af Klint’s Magnus Opus

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Group IV, No. 3, The Ten Largest, Youth by Hilma af Klint, 1907, via The Royal Academy of Arts, London


The painter began her Paintings for the Temple in 1906 and completed them in 1915, during which time she created around 193 paintings in various series and groups. Apparently, as the title of the cycle suggests, she had envisioned these paintings in her temple, which was never realized.


On the painting process of the Paintings for the Temple, the artist 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 brush stroke.”


Hilma af Klint is said to have painted like a madwoman on these pictures in her early years. In 1908 alone, 111 paintings in various formats are said to have been created. A famous series from the large painting cycle is called The Ten Largest. The abstract compositions describe the course of life, from birth to death, reduced to a few forms and bright colors.


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Group IV, The Ten Largest at Exhibition at Guggenheim by Hilma af Klint, 2018, via The Guggenheim Museum, New York


Hilma af Klint is one of the most exciting artists of the 20th century. She was a pioneer of abstract art and also a pioneer especially in her role as a woman. For decades the Swedish artist was known to only a few, her mystical works existed only under the radar of an (art-historical) public. Not least since a large retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, however, she has gained in importance all the more abruptly.


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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.