The rediscovery of Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre radically reshaped art historical knowledge and brought more attention to the works of other forgotten women artists. But why were so many avant-garde women painters erased from the narrative for such a long time? How did their gender influence this? Read on to learn more about this important topic and the women artists that should not have been forgotten.
How Hilma af Klint Changed the Art Historical Narrative
Several decades ago, the development of Western abstract art was regarded as a male-made innovation led by Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. While women were somewhat appreciated in other abstract art movements like Abstract Expressionism, the established history of abstraction was dogmatic. It all changed with the rediscovery of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). A successful figurative artist and illustrator in her forties, af Klint allegedly received a message from higher beings called Georg and Ananda during a spiritual seance conducted with a group of friends in 1904. These beings wanted her to become not only an artist but a receiver of otherworldly wisdom she would pass to humanity through her paintings. Guided by the spirits, she created her first abstract series in 1906, almost five years before Kandinsky painted his first abstract work.
Unlike Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint believed that her contemporaries would not appreciate the innovative approach. While continuing to move forward in her abstract practice, she stated in her will that her work should not be shown publicly for twenty years after her death. The first public appearance of Hilma af Klint’s work occurred in 1986, not twenty, but forty-two years since she passed away in Los Angeles. The exhibition titled The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Art 1890-1986 was groundbreaking in many ways. The subsequent exhibitions of af Klint’s work, including the 2018 show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, left a tremendous impact on both visitors and art professionals, raising questions like what else might have been overlooked in the history of art and what exactly stood in Hilma af Klint’s way of becoming recognized as the first abstract artist? Now let’s look into potential reasons for this.
Reason #1: Women Had Limited Opportunities
A conversation on the art historical acceptance of women artists is impossible without mentioning the groundbreaking 1971 essay written by Linda Nochlin called Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Nochlin argued that it was not the inherent feminine qualities that stood in the way of women artists receiving critical acclaim but institutional barriers, such as lack of education. For centuries, women artists were either self-taught or taught by family members, like Artemisia Gentileschi whose father was a painter.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Art education gradually became available for women in the second half of the nineteenth century, but that did not prove to be an instant solution to the problem. Even though Hilma af Klint represented the first generation of women artists granted access to institutional art education, the public mindset greatly limited her career opportunities. At the time, many art professionals believed that women were only capable of copying the works of male artists and that they had no skills to create something innovative. In the end, even the greatest of copyists was still a copyist and not a proper artist.
Thus, pioneering women artists were not treated as equal actors in the art industry, which excluded them from the canon of art history. And since all history is written by people with their own biases and beliefs, the exclusion of women artists started to improve only with the substantial changes in society. Writers like Linda Nochlin developed their ideas within the field of feminist art history, providing an alternative art historical narrative.
Reason #2: Not Everyone Liked Their Ideas on Spirituality
The spiritual origins of abstraction were never kept a secret. For some artists, metaphysical concepts and beliefs in unseen higher forces propelled the departure of art from figuration to abstraction. Art was not supposed to reflect reality anymore, it could, however, convey a feeling, a thought, or an intangible concept. Spiritualism as a movement was created by women like the Fox sisters and Helena Blavatsky. Spiritualist societies had much less gendered biases and gave women a rare chance to make a career as leaders and influencers. Becoming a medium, a person making contact with the world of spirits, was one of the possible options.
According to the widespread understanding of gender differences in the nineteenth century, women were less rational and more emotional than men and thus could use their developed intuition to detach from the physical world and connect to other invisible realms. Mediumship, in that case, was seen as a passive act, requiring developed senses but no intellectual effort. A medium’s body, in most cases, that of a woman, was acting as an instrument, a receiving and decoding mechanism that had no connection with the personality living in that body. Such a dehumanizing approach, however, did not stop women from pursuing mediumistic careers. On the contrary, mediums often used it to divert accusations of fraud and libel by shifting the blame to spirits.
Nevertheless, a fair share of critics and skeptics were not ready to accept occultists as respectable members of society. The history of spiritualism runs parallel to the rich history of fraud charges. Georgiana Houghton, a medium and a self-taught artist, claimed to create her paintings under spiritual guidance but never got a chance to attract attention to her paintings after being brought to court because of her alleged fraud.
Even within the spiritualist community, the attitude towards mediumship and medium artists varied greatly. Hilma af Klint, among others, received substantial criticism for her practice. Many occultists believed mediumship was not just a fraudulent practice, but a great disrespect to the higher powers. Such an approach devalued the artists’ efforts, not allowing them to participate in the art industry on a higher level.
Reason #3: They rarely presented their art as art
What exactly makes art, art? What separates an art piece from a hand-painted illustration in an anatomical atlas? And what is the difference between lines on a piece of paper, scribbled during a tedious conference call, and a drawing presented in a gallery and perhaps made of the same ink and paper? The short answer is artistic intent.
This intent was one of the reasons for pioneering women abstractionists being disconnected from the established art world. Emma Kunz, a Swiss healer, and a self-taught artist, made colorful mandala-like drawings using a moving pendulum. She painstakingly retraced its movement on paper and later connected the dots and lines. The only problem was that Kunz never considered her drawings to be works of art. They were the diagrams of some unseen forces, aiding in her healing practice along with herbal mixtures and stones.
A big part of Hilma af Kint’s oeuvre also had much more to do with the Western tradition of scientific drawing and diagramming. According to af Klint, her works were not merely paintings, but coded pieces of sacred knowledge passed to her by supernatural beings. Labeling her work this way, af Klint personally separated it from the rest of her artistic practice. In her time, she was a skilled portraitist and illustrator well integrated into Swedish society and made a living from painting on commission.
Reason #4: Hilma af Klint and Others Kept to Themselves
The deliberate misattribution was not the only reason for art historians to overlook artists like Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz. Another explanation could be found in their conscious recluse and limited contact with the outside world. For instance, Emma Kunz rarely left her native region of Brittnau, Switzerland, believing that her mission as a healer was to help the residents and record as much spiritual knowledge as she possibly could during her lifetime. For a long time, she was known only to locals, with her first public exhibition happening only in the 1970s.
Despite her successful career as a figurative artist, Hilma af Klint preferred to keep her spiritual explorations to herself and a limited group of trusted individuals. Although contrary to popular belief, she did exhibit her occult works during her lifetime, she never did it in designated art spaces. Af Klint found her audience in various spiritual gatherings and events. Nevertheless, she believed that her works were unsuitable for her time and that future generations would possess enough knowledge to decode them.
An important aspect of accepting an artist as a part of the art historical narrative is their presence on the art scene and influence on other artists and movements. Due to the limited contact of pioneering women abstractionists with the outside world, it is hard to trace possible contacts and sources of influence. But it does not necessarily mean that they were nonexistent. According to some sources, Wassily Kandinsky, then in his pre-abstract period, could have had a chance to see Hilma af Klint’s work and even meet her in person. If it is true, the artists could have exchanged their ideas to a certain extent. Perhaps, further research would uncover more links between the established artists and outsiders, thus enriching the art historical canon.