Just a few days ago, a new exhibit opened at the Serpentine Galleries in London. It features a group of abstract and symbolic paintings from a Swedish painter by the name of Hilma af Klint who lived from 1862 until 1944. The images of her work on display are quite captivating and intrigued me enough to look further into her work. It’s an interesting case.
She was trained in the 1880’s in Sweden as a traditional artist and for most of her life supported herself with naturalistic landscapes and portraits. This work is well done and attractive but unremarkable. She considered this conventional work as a means of supporting her “life’s work” which were the many spiritually inspired abstract pieces produced from the 1890’s up to the time of her death in 1944.
Interested in spirituality and theosophy, Hilma formed a group of women who met on a regular basis to hold seances to attempt to contact and channel the spirits from other dimensions. She claimed to have been “commissioned” by one of these spirits to create a series of large paintings which occupied her for a number of years. These paintings consisted of geometric and organic forms and a distinct visual vocabulary expressing a deeply spiritual element.
At the time of her death, there was a huge group of work, over 1200 paintings of varying. Some are epic in their size, measuring over 10′ in height. However, none were ever displayed publicly in her lifetime and she stipulated that it not be allowed to be exhibited until twenty years after her death. for fear that it would not be understood in that present time. Little did she know that it would actually be more than forty years before it came to light in an exhibit in 1986. In recent years there have been two major exhibits of her work, including this current show at the Serpentine Galleries, which have really pushed her work into the spotlight.
Her recent discovery and the depth of her work has created a quandary fo art historians who struggle to place her in the timeline of art history. Her work was formed independently of and, in most cases, before the abstract movement pioneered by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian. They don’t know how to categorize her: Is she a pioneer or simply an outsider?
I don’t think this categorization matters. Just take a look at some of these works on display and most likely you won’t care either. The work definitely is in the present and alive. And that is all that matters.