Spending time with the paintings of Hilma af Klint feels a little like having the furniture in your psyche gently rearranged.
Her visual language – marked by botanical illustrations, refractions of light and colour, spiralling snail shells and swans, coded letters and colours – tilts at the complexities of the human experience and our place within the cosmos but defies the brain’s attempts to pin down meaning.
It’s not surprising that so many describe viewing the Swedish artist’s paintings as a spiritual or wonder-filled experience.
Writing about her “flabbergasting” work in The New Yorker, art critic Peter Schjeldahl described af Klint’s work as having a “transcendent intensity”.
So why are we only really learning about her now? And why is she having such a profound effect on so many of us?
When af Klint died in 1944, she left behind more than 1,300 paintings and over 26,000 pages of typed and handwritten notebooks – a fraction of which is currently on display in the major exhibition Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).
Her work and research was initially withheld from the world at her own behest, but then disregarded by an art establishment not much interested in re-writing the history of early-20th century modernism, particularly to make room for a woman considered more mystic than artist.
This is despite the astonishing fact that af Klint’s earliest abstract works precede the likes of art historical greats (and men) Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich – the so-called ‘fathers of Abstract art’.
But it’s not just af Klint’s art-historical significance, or even her formative experiences as a female artist and spiritualist, that make her so compelling — though these are important facts. It’s that her work and messages continue to feel so utterly contemporary.
Perhaps because she knew she was painting them for us? But we’ll get to that.
Af Klint was born into an aristocratic naval family in Sweden in 1862 and went on to study at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (one of the first colleges in Europe to accept women, however modest their ambitions for their female students may have been).
Af Klint’s family was supportive of her education, and outside the Academy she was also educated in science, botany, map-making, mathematics and astronomy.
For Sue Cramer, who co-curated the AGNSW exhibition, this evidence of af Klint’s intelligence, curiosity and deep research into the scientific and spiritual discoveries of the time should put paid to any lingering romantic ideas of af Klint as a recluse or quack.
Much has been made of af Klint’s spirituality and work as a medium, but her interests in spiritualism and theosophy were not unusual for the time. It was, historically speaking, a period of genuine wonder, with discoveries such as radioactivity and quantum theory demonstrating the existence of things beyond the visible, while psychoanalysts including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were also beginning their enquiries into the unconscious mind.
At the same time, “the tenets of civilisation were being greatly questioned in the aftermath of the wars, and she was part of all of that”, says Cramer.
Cramer reflects: “It was a period of intense questioning. And although she [af Klint] was a Christian, she believed in the idea of flexible thinking, and in open-ended truths and inquiry. She didn’t believe in black and white … but in the blending and harmonies of things.”
In 1879, at the age of just 17, af Klint participated in her first spiritualist séance, and two years later claimed to have received her first messages from spiritual beings. In 1896 she founded De Fem (The Five), a spiritual group with four other female artist friends.
De Fem conducted seances, painted, and undertook automatic drawings, claiming to receive messages and predictions from other realms through guides they called “High Masters”.
While af Klint would continue to paint and occasionally exhibit her more traditional portraits and landscapes during this time, Cramer suggests that it was (somewhat ironically) her gender that gave her the space to make her more spiritual works.
“Because she was marginalised, she was forced to work outside the strictures. She found a space through spiritualism where she could realise this extraordinary artistic ability that she had, this vision.
In 1906 af Klint reported receiving a commission from one of the High Masters, called Amaliel, to create a series of works that would become known as The Paintings for the Temple.
By 1915, af Klint had completed a staggering 193 paintings, many of which are included in the AGNSW exhibition.
The exhibition opens with works from the very first series for the Temple, Primordial Chaos, and closes with the three Altarpieces from 1915, which marked the conclusion of the so-called ‘commission’.
Af Klint’s series The Ten Largest, given its own room in the exhibition, is absolutely jaw-dropping. Created in 1907 and painted in bursts of four days at a time, these 10 dazzling and staggeringly large paintings (3 metres high each) meld geometric forms, spiritual diagrams, strange scientific languages, and coded symbols, in arrestingly bright colours.
Af Klint spoke of them as documenting the human life cycle, and they do seem to thrum with a strange life force.
Frustratingly for curious fans and art historians alike, af Klint didn’t write much about the experience of receiving her visions.
Elsewhere, however, af Klint wrote of the spirits standing beside her, and of her disobeying them.
“It has emerged that there was a dialogue between them and that she was very active in her decision to take on this commission that Amaliel offered her,” says Cramer.
“So more has emerged about the complexity of that, which goes hand in hand with her as a really informed person who’s bringing ideas of science and botany, and the religious ideas of her time [to these conversations]. And so, we start to get a much deeper idea of where these works are coming from.”
So much for the origins and intentions of af Klint’s work; but what about where it went?
In 1908, with The Paintings for The Temple already underway, af Klint met Rudolph Steiner, one of the leaders of the Theosophical movement, and showed him some of her work. It’s not known what he said, but many have noted the four-year break af Klint took from Amaliel’s commission shortly after.
Nevertheless, af Klint continued to follow Steiner’s teachings and to paint her more conventional landscapes and portraits, which don’t feature in the exhibition here.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 19.