HomeCultureArt & Theatre

5 Hilma af Klint works that unveil the universe's mysteries

BY Susan Gray

24th Apr 2023 Art & Theatre

5 Hilma af Klint works that unveil the universe's mysteries

Hilma af Klint pioneered abstract art in the 1900s to explore science and spirit. The Tate Modern share why the world is now finally ready for her

Until 1986, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was known mostly to art historians, and primarily as a painter of botanical works and landscapes. But following a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art entitled The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890—1985, af Klint’s abstract works began to reach a wider audience.

The spiritual inspiration for af Klint’s non-figurative work is referenced in 2016 film Personal Shopper, starring Kirsten Stewart. And a solo exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2019 was the museum’s best-ever attended show, with 600,000 visitors.

Hilma af Klint’s early years

Hilma af Klint, Botanical Drawing c.1890. Courtesy Hilma af Klint FoundationCourtesy Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hilma af Klint, Botanical Drawing c.1890

Born in 1862 in Stockholm, af Klint attended the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. During the late 19th century, Sweden was exceptional in European countries for allowing women to formally train as artists.

Childhood summers on the family’s island country house in Lake Maleren fostered the artist’s lifelong love of nature and natural forms.

During her early career she produced botanical illustrations and landscapes. She painted her first abstract work for in 1906, some years before Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, who are usually attributed as the pioneers of non-figurative painting in western art.

Malevich’s Black Square was painted in 1915, and Kandinsky’s Untitled First Abstract Watercolour was completed five years earlier.

Science and spirits

Discovery of X-rays and radio wave transmission in the 1890s promoted a great intellectual interest in worlds unseen. The idea of powerful forces beyond the rational mind, shaping human experience, was a popular subject for artists and writers.

Science fiction emerged as a best-selling fiction genre, presenting technological and scientific developments, and anxieties surrounding them, in a comprehensible way.

"The idea of powerful forces beyond the rational mind, shaping human experience, was a popular subject for artists"

Spiritualism was fashionable, and af Klint attended séances, made all the more poignant in 1880 after the death of her younger sister Hermina. Then she abandoned spiritualism for theosophy, a synthesis of major world religions.

Together with four like-minded women artists known as De Fen (“the five”), she held ceremonies beginning with a Bible reading, and then contacted guiding spirits.

One spirit Amaliel apparently instructed her to paint the series The Paintings for the Temple, eventually comprising 193 works, which she worked on from 1906 to 1915.

The world is finally ready

Hilma af Klint, The Evolution, The WUS Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, No.15, 1908. Courtesy Hilma af Klint FoundationCourtesy Hilma af Klint Foundation. Hilma af Klint, The Evolution, The WUS Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, No.15, 1908

During her lifetime, af Klint did not exhibit her non-figurative work, and left instructions for thousands of works to be hidden from the public for 20 years after her death in 1944.

The artist felt the world needed time to be ready for her work. And, as the Tate Modern’s major show pairing af Klint with Dutch geometric modernist Piet Mondrian underlines, the world is certainly ready for her work now.

Tate curator Nabilia Abdel Nabi highlights five af Klint works you really need to know about:

Spring landscape from Lomma Bay (1892)

The first room in the exhibition features early landscape paintings by Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian.

The theme of the exhibition is how they each developed radical abstract languages of art that are rooted in nature, or as a way of thinking through nature.

This is an example of the academic painting af Klint was trained in and continued to produce even as she was making her abstract works.

The Atom Series, No. 14 (1917)

This work is shown in a room we’re calling “The Ether”, dedicated to the image worlds and thought systems that fuelled the work of both artists.

The discovery of the atom was groundbreaking and af Klint’s interest in this led to a series of works titled The Atom

"I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development"

She once wrote: “I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development. These possibilities I want, gradually, to reveal” (December 5, 1916, notebook HAK 579, p38/9).

The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 10, Old Age (1907)

The Ten Largest series by Hilda am Klint, Tate Modern, Jai MonaghanCredit: Jai Monaghan. The Ten Largest series on display at Tate Modern

The Ten Largest are part of The Paintings for The Temple, a body of works af Klint believed was commissioned by her spiritual guides. They represent the stages of life, from childhood to old age.

This is the last work in the series. Here, af Klint intertwines a rich constellation of visual languages from the diagrammatic, geometric forms to vegetal or biomorphic abstraction. She imagined them hanging together in a spiral “Temple”.

Series II, No. 3d, The Teachings of Buddhism (1920)

This is part of the World Religions series which af Klint made in 1920. What is extraordinary about these works is the simplicity of their geometric forms complemented by the complexity of their execution.

Despite the precision of the larger circles, flaws and discolorations on the canvas, and the fragile hesitancy of the painted line, the lively modulation of paint opens up a whole new texture through which to read these works.

On Flowers, Mosses, Lichen (1919)

In 1919, Hilma af Klint began her notebook Flowers, Mosses, Lichen in German, with her partner Thomasine Andersson.

She researched 146 specimens, approximately one a day, developing an elaborate diagrammatic language to represent the energetic and emotional character of each.

"All human feeling has a counterpart in the vegetal world and the spiritual realm"

This shows her concern with the connections between things, in which all human feeling has a counterpart in the vegetal world and the spiritual realm—like a field guide to spiritual life.

There will be a digital version available in the show.

Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is on at London’s Tate Modern from April 20, 2023 to September 3, 2023

Banner credit: Jai Monaghan. Hilma Af Klint and Piet Mondrian Installation View at Tate Modern 2023. Photo Tate 

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...