HILMA AF KLINT – Pioneer of abstract art an
exhibition coup for New Zealand
Startling paintings by Swedish artist rewrite modern art history
City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi is thrilled to bring to New Zealand for the first time, Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings. The exhibition showcases an artist whose mysterious works —until recently little known—have captivated audiences and broken records for attendance worldwide, including major galleries such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where in 2019 it attracted the largest audience in the museum’s 60-year history.
‘City Gallery is honoured to host this extraordinary exhibition, introducing af Klint’s remarkable body of abstract and mystical paintings to New Zealand audiences,’ City Gallery Director Elizabeth Caldwell says.
Af Klint began creating her most ambitious paintings in 1906. Some are huge in scale – unprecedented in her time – with radiant colour combinations, enigmatic symbols and other-worldly shapes. Influenced by spiritualist practices and scientific discoveries, af Klint saw herself as a receiver of messages from higher powers, which guided the creation of her work. She instructed her paintings be kept secret until 20 years after her death – convinced that the world was not yet ready to see her art.
The eventual discovery of af Klint’s work has turned art history on its head. Remarkably, her first abstract paintings were made several years prior to those of her more famous male contemporaries Kasimir Malevich, Vassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian—artists commonly considered ‘the fathers of abstract art’. In an era of limited creative freedom for women artists, af Klint found a way to create an astonishing body of artwork unlike anything that had been seen before, which still has the capacity to surprise and astound us today.
The exhibition features more than 100 paintings, including The Ten Largest – exuberantly colourful paintings that are a towering three-plus metres tall, through which the artist explores thefour stages of human development. Other major series from the artist’s Paintings for the Temple cycle will also be on show including The Swan and The Dove, which are filled with drama and symbolism.
Caldwell says af Klint’s themes are highly relevant in today’s turbulent times. ‘The secret paintings were created not for fame or fortune, but to speak across time, to audiences of the future. Her exploration of humanity’s place in the cosmos resonates particularly during a global pandemic and the challenging issues we are experiencing today. An underlying theme of af Klint’s beautiful paintings is a drive toward harmony and interconnection, ideas that are pertinent for our time.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is supported by the Wellington City Council, Wellington NZ, and the City Gallery Wellington Foundation and is presented with the cooperation of The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm, in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. The exhibition has been curated by Sue Cramer, formerly Curator Heide Museum of Modern Art. It will also feature as part of the 2022 New Zealand Festival of the Arts.
Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said the exhibition was coming at a time when globally af Klint is being recognised as a vital originator of abstract art and it will be a major drawcard for Wellington. Residents and visitors will enjoy a unique and stunning insight into the world of af Klint. ‘Her vision and message is represented with a scale and a perspective of colour and design that will inspire, for many, a new interpretation of modern art and the world around us.’
Other exhibition highlights are af Klint’s rarely seen early botanical watercolours; her experiments with the spiritualist group The Five; more than 30 abstract watercolours from the last decades of the artist’s life, several of which have never been exhibited in public before; and a selection of notebooks, which give fascinating insights into her influences and processes.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings can be seen at City Gallery Wellington from 4 December 2021 to 27 March 2022 with tickets on sale soon. Visit hilma.citygallery.org.nz for more information.
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About the artist
Born in Stockholm in 1862, af Klint was one of the first women to study painting at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with honours in 1887. She established herself as a respected painter in Stockholm and, like many of her contemporaries, became deeply engaged with spiritualism, rosicrucianism and theosophy, which had a profound influence on her practice.
In 1896, af Klint and four other like-minded women founded a spiritual group named The Five and studied esoteric texts, conducted séances, exercised automatic writing and mediumistic drawing. Following a traffic accident, af Klint died in the autumn of 1944, aged almost 82, leaving behind more than 1,300 rarely seen works and 124 notebooks. Her works have since been displayed in major museums in New York, London, Stockholm and São Paulo.
The illustrated book Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings includes new writing by Sue Cramer (editor and exhibition curator), Nicholas Chambers, Jennifer Higgie, Julia Voss and City Gallery Wellington curator Aaron Lister.
About City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi
City Gallery Wellington is a contemporary art gallery with a dynamic programme of exhibitions and events, and an international reputation. Located in Te Ngākau Civic Square, the Gallery is the hub for art-life in New Zealand’s capital.
Anna Chalmers, Communications Manager, City Gallery Wellington