Study Visit – Hilma af Klint

This week’s study visit offered the opportunity to see the work of this little known Swedish artist working in the early 1900s. I don’t think that I would have thought to go to this exhibition on my own, and I don’t think that I would have found it particularly accessible without the introductions provided by the gallery here, and by our tutor.

Af Klint went to art school and studied classic drawing and painting, portraiture and landscapes but her inner spiritual life came to dominate her work and she is now heralded as possibly the first abstractionist, predating Kadinsky. I am not sure that this is really valid. I think that she was trying to represent spiritual ideas which were, to her, completely real, and in this sense her work is absolutely representational, just not of the natural world as we see it.

Theosophy was spiritual and spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which mashed together philosophises from a number of religions. Af Klint developed her own system of symbols, signs and word fragments which she wove together in images. She explored representing opposites, male, female, light and dark etc in terms of shapes, colours and decorative designs. These became more sophisticated and moved from small watercolours and drawings to huge oil paintings, intended for a ceremonial space, which she was directed to create by her ‘spirit guide’.

A number of her works can be seen here.

Her themes or investigations included evolution and cosmology and I found the paintings which considered the beginning of the universe from a point source the most interesting. These were painted before the big bang had been theorised and even before the existence of other galaxies had been discovered. She was certainly before her time in her scientific interests but also in the graphic nature of her art. Many of these works reminded me of 60s and 70s album covers for instance Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ or the more recent  ‘Resistance’ by Muse, whereas her earlier, more floral and sinuous works remind me of 1950’s curtain material.

Since she assigned complimentary colours to opposing meanings and used symmetry, spirals, and geometric shapes, her designs have a powerful graphic effect. The colours are often muted and the dictates of how she used the colours produced very visually pleasing results. However, very few people would have seen these in her lifetime. On the advice of Rudolf Steiner, she did not publically show her work, and one can only wonder at how and why he chose to control her in that way.

In the game of ‘which would you take home if you could choose one’, I would have chosen a small watercolour expressing the creation of the universe, like this one.

Her works have a very specific purpose of religious or philosophical enquiry. They, and the process by which she arrived at them was interesting but I felt I was looking at rather clinical illustrations or diagrams. I think this is why I did not find an emotional engagement with them. The exception was the small watercolours in which she was trying to represent the single moment when the universe exploded outwards from a point source.



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