In search of Hilma af Klint, who upended art history, but left few traces

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In search of Hilma af Klint, who upended art history, but left few traces
Hilma af Klint's work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sept. 2019. In and around Stockholm, the secretive painter — whose bold abstract works predated Kandinsky’s — lived a life of spiritual yearning that shaped her artistic career. Erika Gerdemark/The New York Times.

by Andrew Ferren

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- It seemed a daunting challenge to follow in the footsteps of a secretive artist who destroyed all her correspondence more than a decade before her death in 1944. Someone who, between 1906 and 1915, had created an astonishing cache of nearly 200 novel paintings — bold abstract compositions as large as 10 by 8 feet — mostly in a small, shared studio in the heart of a major European city, with virtually no record of anyone seeing or discussing the work.

But if it’s 2019 and the artist is Hilma af Klint and the city is Stockholm, I was ready to sign up for some Swedish sleuthing.

If her name sounds familiar it’s because Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was the unexpected star of last year’s global cultural calendar with a six-month show at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum that set attendance records (600,000 visitors) and topped almost every New York City and, indeed, American, art critic’s list of must-see exhibitions. It was her first solo show in America — 75 years after her death.

Now celebrated as a pioneering abstract painter working years before the modernist male titans Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and others supposedly “invented” the concept of abstract painting, af Klint was virtually unknown until a few of her paintings were included in the 1986 exhibition “The Spiritual in Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

While there is not currently any comprehensive display of af Klint’s abstract works in Sweden or anywhere else, I discovered over three days in late May with the help of museum curators, biographers and af Klint family descendants, that it is possible to move around Stockholm, one of Europe’s most evocative cities, and connect with her life — almost from cradle to grave — and its artistic context.

It helps that Stockholm was untouched by the destruction of 20th-century wars and still looks rather 19th century, with ornate, low-rise buildings, and both tall ships and vintage-looking ferries darting to and fro on the city’s bustling waterways.

And this autumn is a great time to go, as an exhibition at Millesgarden Museum just opened with 20 af Klint paintings, including several of the abstract canvases currently wowing the art world. Two more focused displays are on view at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet well into 2020. Die-hard fans could even plan a doubleheader, returning to Sweden in spring for a major exhibition at the Moderna Museet’s branch in Malmo, and visit Lund and Helsingborg, the two southern Swedish towns where the artist lived toward the end of her life.

— Hidden Treasure
To the extent af Klint was known to art historians before the 1980s, it was as a portraitist, illustrator and painter of descriptive botanical studies. As far as is known, she showed the abstract works — lush, flowing fields of color punctuated by looping floral and biomorphic forms, as well as letters, shapes, often indecipherable words and symbols that float across the paintings’ surfaces — only to a handful of people. Perhaps because of their reactions, she feared the world was not ready to understand her nonfigurative work and instructed her heir to not show the abstract paintings until 20 years after her death.

That heir was her nephew, Erik af Klint, a naval man who knew nothing about art and happily obliged his aunt’s hibernation clause. In the late 1960s when the crates were finally opened, the paintings astonished. But so did the 26,000 pages of af Klint’s accompanying notes, many detailing the paintings’ creation starting in 1906, led by a spiritual guide named Amaliel who contacted af Klint during séances and not only “commissioned” the paintings but, at least at the outset, had, she claimed, directed her hand as she painted.

“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force,” af Klint wrote in one of her journals of the 193 mostly abstract works known as “The Paintings for the Temple,” meditations on human life and relationships in the most elemental terms. “I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict, nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely without changing a single brush stroke.”

She went on to paint many more abstract series, totaling nearly 1,300 works, as well as a few portrait commissions and other naturalistic works, many of whose whereabouts today are unknown. In addition to painting, af Klint spent the last decades of her life pursuing her spiritual journey. Her search for a home for the paintings led as far as Dornach, Switzerland, where she hoped Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher and founder of anthroposophy — with which Hilma became associated with for several years — might want them for his new spiritual center. At one point she even planned to build “the temple” she referenced in “The Paintings for the Temple” series on an island off southern Sweden. When no solution was found she asked her nephew to give the world time to catch up.

— Tracing Her Path
Though a lack of financial resources would be a constant feature of her long life, Hilma af Klint was born in a palace, a perfect spot to pick up her trail. Completed in 1795, Karlberg Palace, where her father taught naval studies, remains a military academy and is closed to the public. But there are fantastic views of its commanding, buttoned-down neoclassical facade from across the water on Kungsholms Strand, as well as a lovely public park behind it.

Already in af Klint’s time, her family’s naval history stretched back to the 1700s. Besides admirals and officers, there were also cartographers who mapped the Baltic Sea and whose knowledge of those waters at least once gave Sweden an advantage over her frequent enemy, Russia. Because of this long history of service, the family was ennobled in 1805, which accounts for the “af” in Hilma af Klint.

I was lucky to spend several hours visiting sites in and around Stockholm with several af Klint family descendants, including Hilma’s grandnephew Johan af Klint, who was 5 when the artist died and left her artwork and writings to his father. While Erik af Klint had been close to his aunt, he knew nothing of her work or spiritual ideas, which Johan says included theosophy, Rosicrucianism, hermeticism and an esoteric strain of Christianity. “It was a very male-dominated society and she was strong-willed and sort of knocked into this square family,” he said.

In the late 1960s, Erik af Klint attempted to donate Hilma’s entire body of abstract paintings to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, but was rebuffed. By 1972, Erik had created a foundation to administer and preserve the collection, though it has no dedicated exhibition space, hence the need today to see the paintings at special shows.

I asked Julia Voss, whose biography of Hilma af Klint will be published early next year (in German; the English edition is expected in 2021), where I might follow in af Klint’s footsteps and, of all places, she directed me to Stockholm’s 13th-century cathedral to view two works of art that she is convinced af Klint absorbed from a young age. The first is a massive sculpture of “St. George and the Dragon,” a theme in one of her series. The other is the “Parhelion Painting,” depicting a rare atmospheric optical effect of multiple halos appearing in the sky over Stockholm in 1535. Halos, rings and other luminous effects are a hallmark of “The Paintings for the Temple.”

Visits to other museums further enhance a sense of af Klint’s world — especially the artistic environment. The National Museum, which reopened in 2018 after a five-year renovation, provides the city’s most international display of late 19th-century art, with Swedish and Scandinavian artists like Anders Zorn, Bruno Liljefors and Julia Beck, shown alongside French and other European artists. Among the Swedes there is a notable amount of work by female artists: paintings, sculptures, embroideries, carpets and other decorative arts.

Sweden’s population in the mid-19th century tilted more female than male, and both the state and society began opening trades and educational opportunities to women. Among them was the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where af Klint enrolled in 1882. While the academy was among the first in Europe to admit women, few thought they could be great artists and would instead focus on copying masterpieces or paint charming portraits and domestic scenes.

A visit to the academy, with its elegant entry and halls lined with plaster casts of classical sculptures contrasting with the bohemian spirit of students and professors buzzing about, feels much as it might have in af Klint’s day. The environment was so collegial I stayed for a lunch of lentil curry and a glass of rosé. I was visiting so many museums in so little time, that I ate several meals in Stockholm’s cozy and chic museum cafes.

In 1887, af Klint graduated from the Academy with honors and was awarded use of a shared studio at Hamngatan 5 that she maintained until 1909 and where she painted the first 100 or so “Paintings for the Temple” — including “The Ten Largest,” mesmerizingly powerful works that measure almost 10 by 8 feet and were likely painted on the floor — between 1906 and 1908. The building was leveled to create modern Stockholm’s major shopping district, but at the time, this area was the center of cultural life.

— Seeking Spiritual Guidance
It’s known that af Klint participated in séances as a teenager and dedicated even more time and energy communicating with the spiritual realm after her sister died when af Klint was 18. She joined a circle of women artists known as the Edelweiss Society who held séances, and by 1896, she participated in weekly séances with four other women who called themselves The Five (De Fem). After prayers and Bible readings, the séance would begin and the women would collaboratively record their experiences in journals and in automatic drawings that include motifs later explored in af Klint’s “Paintings for the Temple.”

These women were hardly alone in searching for existential answers and universal truths from a higher realm. The social dislocation of the Industrial Revolution left urban populations seeking connectedness. Scientific advances like X-rays and atomic theory seemed to reinforce the existence of a truth beyond appearances. In Europe, the tenets of Buddhism, theosophy and anthroposophy were in vogue, and many other artists of the period — including Kandinsky and Malevich — explored a spiritual basis for their art. But perhaps because we’ve spent a century studying their work, and are now seeing af Klint’s paintings almost completely unfiltered, she can have a surprising effect.

Iris Muller Westermann, who curated a 2013 af Klint exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet remembers leading tours “with very pulled-together bourgeois types who appeared completely in control of everything until they suddenly burst into tears. Neither happy nor sad, it was as if spending time with Hilma’s paintings spurred something inside them that needed an outlet.”

It’s believed most of The Five’s meetings took place at Mathilda Nilsson’s house at Kammakargatan 6, as she was already quite influential in the realm of spiritualism in Sweden. Most of The Five (others eventually attended the meetings as well) lived in Ostermalm, central Stockholm’s fashionable new eastern district that was developed at the turn of the 20th century. From about 1898 to 1918, af Klint lived with her mother at Brahegatan 52. Anna Cassel, another member of The Five who became the artist’s lifelong friend and occasional financial support lived at Engelbrektsgatan 31. Though a few modern buildings likely dot each block of the district, pilgrims will still find the ambience of the streets much as af Klint likely did — with charming cafes, taverns and shops on street level, and tidy rows of apartment windows above.

Erik af Klint and his family lived at Karlavagen 56, the family home on one of the district’s broader avenues, where his son Johan recalls his great-aunt’s paintings were stored, rolled up in boxes in an unheated attic for more than 20 years. Miraculously, they emerged in virtually impeccable condition.

Despite having rejected an outright bequest of af Klint’s legacy, the Moderna Museet has been instrumental in conserving the collection and has recently committed to maintaining her presence in its galleries.

“We don’t want to create a separate gallery or a shrine to her that is isolated from everyone else,” Fredrik Liew, the curator of Swedish and Nordic art, said, “because our museum exists to put things into context.”

On view through most of 2020 is a selection of notebooks from 1902 to 1905 by The Five, including automatic drawings created as a group, as well as individual drawings by af Klint. These are shown along with other Swedish artist collectives from the period, particularly through the lens of feminism in a gallery titled “A Room of One’s Own,” in homage to Virginia Woolf. A nearby display, “Spheres of Abstraction,” places af Klint’s larger paintings with other artists of the period who turned to abstraction to represent not just spiritual or utopian ideals but also to express the sometimes frenetic movement and pace of modern cities.

— Return to Nature
Aristocrats were expected to be landowners, so the af Klint family acquired property on the island of Adelso in Lake Malaren. If Stockholm surprises visitors for seeming to have more water than land, Lake Malaren, which stretches west of the capital, is the opposite — a body of water so dense with islands, peninsulas and outcroppings that it can appear more like a network of rivers. Approaching Adelso by car in early summer is like flipping through one of af Klint’s sketchbooks, with rapidly alternating glimpses of water and forest, thickets and clearings, deer and other wildlife, not to mention the exuberant wildflowers whose colors and forms the artist celebrated in her work.

Today one can see from the road the modest but pretty wooden house at Hanmora, as the estate is still called, though it is no longer in her family’s possession. It was here that af Klint spent childhood summers and in her early adulthood taught Sunday school at the quaint church, which can be visited. She returned to Adelso and the neighboring island of Munso throughout her life. Anna Cassel helped her establish a studio on the grounds of Villa Furuheim on Munso, where she moved with her ailing mother in 1918. Unfortunately, neither the villa nor the studio remain.

For those who’d rather not leave the city, a stroll on Djurgarden, the verdant former hunting ground in central Stockholm known as the “garden island” also offers abundant Swedish nature. On a 30-minute stroll to Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, the charming house museum of a Swedish prince that is packed with standout 19th- and early 20th-century paintings, I walked into more spider webs and had more bugs fly into my eyes and mouth than on all the other days of my life combined.

Both Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde and the nearby Thielska Gallery, the home of a wealthy industrialist and art collector, exhibit what was considered in af Klint’s day the crème de la crème of Swedish and Scandinavian artists. Among the stars at the Thielska are more than a dozen paintings by Edvard Munch, whose work af Klint would have encountered in 1894 in Theodor Blanch’s popular Art Salon next to her Hamngatan studio. Among the artists included at both museums is Tyra Kleen, a symbolist painter of the same era.

Her works join af Klint’s and another artist’s this autumn at the Millesgarden Museum on the island of Lidingo, for an exhibition on spirituality in art. Kleen is now little known outside of specialist Swedish circles while af Klint is emerging as a magnet for scholars and the public.

Back on Djurgarden, tucked behind the Nordic Museum is the Naval Cemetery where af Klint is buried alongside her parents in their family grave. In general, Swedish cemeteries are pretty restrained affairs, but the granite block marked “Kommendor Viktor af Klint Familjegrav,” beneath which af Klint lies, is among the most humble, a fitting finish for an artist who hid her life’s work rather than let it be misunderstood.

“It’s not likely she’ll be hidden away again,” says her great-grand-niece, Ulrika af Klint, who now leads the foundation.

As Hilma af Klint herself wrote, “The experiments I have conducted … that were to awaken humanity when they were cast upon the world were pioneering endeavors. Though they travel through much dirt they will yet retain their purity.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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