Born in the early 60s of the 19th century, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was a true visionary, pioneering abstract art several years before Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Through the death of her younger sister, af Klint leaned into spiritualism, producing a beautiful, symbolic lexicon of paintings that reflect her studies for the natural world alongside her spiritual ideas.
“Tree of Knowledge,” a ground-breaking 1913–1915 series of eight watercolor works on paper, is currently on show at David Zwirner gallery in New York (34 East 69th Street location), running through February 5, 2022.
Hilma af Klint’s Early Years
Born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 26, 1862, at the Karlberg Palace, Hilma af Klint was the fourth child of Mathilda af Klint (née Sonntag) and Captain Victor af Klint, a Swedish naval commander.
Growing up in Sweden, Af Klint spent summers with her family at their manor “Hanmora” on the island of Adelsö, 50 km east of Stockholm. The idyllic surroundings were an early influence on her interest in natural forms.
At the age of 18, af Klint began studying portrait painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she was one of the first women to attend. Throughout her five-year course of studies at the Royal Academy, she trained to be a traditional landscape, portrait, and botanical painter.
After graduating with honors in 1887, af Klint was given a studio in the Academy’s “Atelier Building” in Stockholm’s artist’s quarter. While conventional painting became the source of her income, her life’s work became her abstract work.
In 1889, af Klint became an early member of the Theosophical Society, a spiritual group based on the idea of a universal bond of humanity. The group’s beliefs were heavily influenced by religion, philosophy, and unexplained laws of nature. She continued her spiritual journey by joining the Edelweiss Society in hopes of developing a deeper connection. However, only a year later, she left the group as she felt it was not giving her the feedback she needed. To deepen her spiritual development, af Klint and four other like-minded women artists established “The Five.”
The group proved to be a better fit for af Klint and “The Five” had weekly gatherings to pray, meditate, study the New Testament, and perform séances in which they made contact with spirits and spiritual leaders. The group’s medium verbally expressed the spiritual connections and led the group in automatic writing exercises. These experiences led to a definite change in Hilma af Klint’s art as she began to focus her pieces on being bold, colorful, and unrecognizable to the physical world. In other words, her spiritual journey was the main influence in producing abstract paintings.
Af Klint’s Well-Known Works of Art
Af Klint’s started the abstract work for which she is well-known in 1906 at the age of 44, 20 years into her artistic practice. It combines geometry, scientific research, and religion.
Her most notable body of work, “The Paintings for the Temple,” was created between 1906 and 1915, and comprises 193 paintings grouped within several sub-series. “The Ten Largest” paintings describing the different phases of life, from early childhood to old age, were painted in 1907, measure around 240 by 320 cm (95 by 125 inches), and are shown in their entirety at the Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden.
“Tree of Knowledge,” a ground-breaking 1913–1915 series of eight watercolor works on paper, is currently on show at David Zwirner gallery in New York (34 East 69th Street location), running through February 5, 2022. Af Klint gifted the set to Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Anthroposophy movement, whom she had met for the first time in 1908 and who would influence af Klint’s work later in life.
The “Tree of Knowledge” series demonstrates af Klint’s interest to refine her esoteric iconography and express the spiritualist beliefs and philosophies with which she was involved after her younger sister Hermina died in 1880. All eight paintings in the series feature a variation of a tree with a heart-shaped crown and a circle surrounding a tree trunk, a visual allegory about the circle of life and death.
The revelatory collection of works follows the highly acclaimed 2018–2019 exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” held at the Guggenheim Museum.
A Lasting Legacy
With a deep-seated belief that the world was not yet ready to accept her work, af Klint said that she didn’t want it to be disclosed for at least 20 years after her passing. She stated that her contemporaries were not equipped to understand and appreciate her abstract, spiritually influenced work. Af Klint wanted her work to transcend to future generations because she believed by then the public would understand.
Her abstract work remained largely unseen for many years and it was only thanks to art historian Åke Fant that af Klint’s work was introduced to an international audience at a Nordik conference in Helsinki in 1984. Further recognition came two years later, in 1986, when af Klint’s work was part of a group exhibition
“The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1945” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an exhibition that also traveled to Chicago and the Netherlands in 1987.
Her collection of abstract paintings spans over 1200 pieces and is owned and managed by the Hilma af Klint Foundation. In 2018, the foundation signed a long-term agreement for a dedicated space with the Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden, to show works by af Klint on a continuous basis.
The Scandinavian artist is now considered a pioneer of abstract art, preceding the abstract work of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian by five years. It is overall her underlying spirituality in all of her works that have defined her artistic contribution.
In 2013, Moderna Museet presented ”Hilma af Klint: Abstract Pioneer,” the most visited exhibition of a Swedish artist in the museum’s history.