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Hilma af Klint – Swedish Painter and Mystic

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

The First Modern Western Abstract Artist

The first Western Abstract artist may not be who many of us think it is. When art lovers talk about the earliest Modern abstract painters, they tend to reference artists like Wassily Kandinsky (Dec. 16, 1866 Dec. 13, 1944), Piet Mondrian (March 7, 1872 – Feb. 1, 1944), and Paul Jackson Pollock (Jan. 28, 1912 – Aug. 11, 1956). Just in time for Swedish Days that will be happening here in Geneva, IL next week, in this post, we are going to get acquainted with the life and work of a lesser known Swedish painter, Hilma af Klint, now recognized as the first Western Modern Abstract artist. In fact, Hilma began painting in her radically different, abstract style in 1906, while Kandinsky's study, First Abstract Watercolor, was painted in 1911 (below on the left). Mondrian's oil-on-canvas Composition with Oval in Color Planes II was painted in 1914 (below in the middle). Klint's oil and tempera on paper, They Tens mainstay IV, was painted in 1907 (below at the right).


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Meet Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint may not yet be a household name. During her lifetime she may not have been famous, but she was a highly-regarded painter of pastoral scenes. So much so that she was able to support herself with her traditional works like Eftersommar (1903), while at the same time creating a largely private collection of revolutionary abstract works as well. Hilma rarely showed them to others and stipulated in her will that they remain hidden until 20 years after her death. Her work remained unseen until 1986 and in the decades since they have began to receive the recognition.

"Eftersommar" (Late Summer) an early naturalistic painting by Hilma af Klint. Painted in Sweden in 1903 and protected by Swedish copyright law until 2014 (life of painter + 70 years).
Eftersommar (Late Summer), 1903, oil on canvas

Hilma's abstract style features bold colors, geometric and organic forms, and rhythmic repetitions. While her work is groundbreaking, as we know that all art and artists derive some inspiration from the art and artists that preceded them. As we saw in the March 2021 post,