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.
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, Nothing New Under the Sun, we can find many examples of modern seeming works in the past. Klint's work, while uniquely her own, is no different; it recalls Scandinavian folk art and ancient Nordic runes. Compare Klint's painting, Evolution, №15, Group IV, The Seven-pointed Stars (1908) with the example of Norwegian rosemaling on a chest (1844) and the inscription on the 12th-century Swedish Vaksala Runestone. You will notice similar uses of color, forms, and composition between Hilma's painting and these examples of traditional Scandinavian art. In fact, many of the stylistic choices of what we call abstract art can be found in traditional folk art from around the world, and folk art was an influence on many 20th and 21st century artists.
Hilma af Klint was the daughter of Captain Victor af Klint, a Swedish naval commander and Mathilda af Klint (née Sonntag) on Oct. 26 , 1862 in Solna, Sweden. She spent summers with her family at their farm Hammora on the island of Adelsö in Lake Mälaren to the West of Stockholm. Growing up, she gained a love for nature which fostered an interest in botany and mathematics. All of which influenced her professional and "secret" art later in her life.
In 1880, her younger sister, Herminam died and Klint began to take interest in spiritualism, which was very popular at the time. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm for five years during, studying portraiture and landscape painting. While attending art school, she met Anna Cassel (March 5, 1860 – Feb. 18,1937), the first of the four other women who worked together and shared an artistic vision, an interest in spiritualism, and philosophy. The artists called themselves 'The Five' (de fem); the other women in the group were Cornelia Cederberg (Nov. 6, 1854 – Feb. 21, 1933), Sigrid Hedman (née Norman) (April 26, 1855 – Feb. 28, 1922), and Emma 'Mathilda' Nilsson (née Cederberg) (July 13, 1844 – June 28, 1923).
The project on which "the Five" were engaged involved, in 1892, recording in a book a completely new system of mystical thought in the form of messages from what the believed were "higher spirits." As early as 1896, the group experimented with automatic drawing, techniques of allowing your hand to draw lines without a predetermined goal and can be considered a visual take on musical free improvisation. This technique later had strong influence on the artistic philosophy of many artists in the Surrealist movement of the 1920 to 1940s, whose aim was to express the subconscious through art. Klint described her artistic process:
“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.”
Much like polymath, Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1197), who believed she had received heavenly inspiration and understand to create her art and scientific discoveries, Hilma af Klint believed she had been "commissioned" by an otherworldly patron to create her most important body of work, The Paintings for the Temple. Compare the two women's interpretation of the creation of universe in the works above, The Universe from Scivias (1165) by Bingen and Tree of Knowledge No. 2 Series W (1913) by Klint. Although the two works were created nearly 750 years apart, the similarities in shape and repetition are astonishing. (See the two paintings above, Bingen, left, and Klint, right.)
Hilma's life's work, The Paintings for the Temple, begun in 1905, consisted of 193 predominately abstract paintings in various series and group. With the paintings, Hilma attempted to bring harmony between a series of apparent dichotomies (opposing forces), including the spirituality and materialism, goodness and evil, male and female, and religion and science. Klint incorporated elements from the scentific discoveries that were occurring at the time she was working, such as studies on atoms, electromagnetic waves, as well as mystical symbols.
Two paintings from the set "Altarpiece" are below, Altarpiece No. 1, Group X (1915) tempera and metallic leaf on paper and Altarpiece No. 2, Group X (1915) tempera and metallic leaf on paper. (See them above.) The Altarpiece painting show a harmony of opposites as No. 1 features an upward pointing triangle topped with a sun-like circle. The triangle is like a prism, breaking the sun rays into the colors of the visual spectrum, while No 2. features a downward pointing dark triangle with a whirling planet-like circle resting atop.
Hilma af Klint died in Djursholm, Sweden in 1944, at nearly 82 years old, from injuries resulting from a traffic accident. She had only exhibited her works abstract works a few times during spiritual conferences and gatherings, as she believed the general artistic audience would not understand them. In 1970, her nephew, Erik af Klint, offered her works as a gift to Moderna Museet in Stockholm, but the donation was declined. He subsequently donated thousands of drawings and paintings to a foundation bearing the artist's name. Art historian Åke Fant introduced Hilma af Klint to the world in the 1980s, presenting her works at the Nordik Conference in Helsinki, Finland in 1984. Her works have since toured the world, being shown in Paris, New York, London, São Paulo and others. Additionally, the Hilma af Klint Foundation has reached an agreement to show some of her works on a continuing basis at Moderna Museet.
Many artist's working today owe a nod to the work of artists like Hilma. Artists such as painter Allyson Grey (b. March 3, 1952) has made a career of by painting mystically inspired works featuring repeated patterns and "secret languages," a series of characters that are not known letters or numbers but symbols that only have a secret personal meaning to the artists or viewer. Artist and poet Carol Diehl (b. 1952) wrote about Hilma's work, "I was already creating diagrams in my paintings to indicate systems belonging to ethereal or supernatural worlds, like those that made af Klint’s work so compelling.”
Getting Creative At Home Hilda-Style
As creatives in any field, whether it's visual art, music, dance, theater, poetry, etc., we can draw inspiration from artists such as Hilma and innovate our art to best "express the inexpressible" inside of us. Try automatic drawing with pen and paper. You can draw without looking and then go back and fill in enclosed spaces with colors. You can find a free online drawing toll that features AI assistance at AutoDraw. You can even automatically draw yourself a musical étude and perform it. You may use a computer with MIDI software and automatically draw with a trackpad or on a piano roll screen in your DAW to create electronic music. Google's ChromeMusic: SongMaker offers a free online tool where you can experiment with automatic drawing on a MIDI piano roll. While their other online musical experiment, Kandinsky (which we known should be called af Klint allows you to automatically draw with your mouse or trackpad and create visual music. Trying writing some stream of consciousness poetry and maybe even recite it. You can apply the technique to just about any art form.
As always, feel free to share your experiments with me!
"The Hilma af Klint Effect: How the Future-Forward Painter Inspires Artists Today"
1st Dibs. Introspection Magazine. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/hilma-af-klint/
About Hilma af Klint. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.hilmaafklint.se/en/about-hilma-af-klint/.
Dover, Caitlin. “Who Was Hilma Af Klint?: At the Guggenheim, Paintings by an Artist Ahead of Her Time.” The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/checklist/who-was-hilma-af-klint-at-the-guggenheim-paintings-by-an-artist-ahead-of-her-time .
Forrest, Jason. “Hilma Af Klint: Visualizing the Spirit World.” Medium. Nightingale, February 15, 2019. https://medium.com/nightingale/hilma-af-klint-visualizing-the-spirit-world-bb54781d9beb.
“Hilma Af Klint Paintings, Bio, Ideas.” The Art Story. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/af-klint-hilma/.
Hilma af Klint. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.skbl.se/en/article/HilmaafKlint
“Hilma Af Klint.” Moderna Museet i Malmö. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.modernamuseet.se/malmo/en/exhibitions/hilma-af-klint/.
“Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/hilma-af-klint.
Voss, Julia. “The First Abstract Artist? (And It's Not Kandinsky): Focus: Hilma Af Klint – Tate Etc.” Tate. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-27-spring-2013/first-abstract-artist-and-its-not-kandinsky.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.