Before Malevich, before Kandinsky, before Mondrian, there was Hilma.
The recent rediscovery of Hilma af Klint's abstract paintings has changed the course of art and art history. A Swedish artist-mystic working at the turn of the twentieth century, af Klint saw herself as a receiver of messages from the spirit powers who guided the creation of her work. She called on both the spiritualist and scientific investigations of her age (from theosophy and rosicrucianism, to new scientific discoveries about radiation, including X-rays and spectroscopy) in a quest to understand the visible and invisible mysteries of the world, and communicate them through art.
In an era offering limited creative freedoms for women, af Klint, working largely in isolation, created the first abstract paintings years before the celebrated fathers of abstraction—Kasimir Malevich, Vassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian. Af Klint recognised that the world was not ready for her work, and anticipated a future more open to its message and possibilities. She left instructions that her work be kept secret until at least twenty years after her death.
That time has come. Over the last few years, af Klint has become one of the world’s most discussed artists. There have been exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Serpentine Gallery, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; and Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The Guggenheim show attracted 600,000 visitors—the highest attendance for any show in its history. Af Klint’s work, message, and story have captivated audiences around the globe.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings brings this highly celebrated body of work to Aotearoa New Zealand for the first time. Curated by Sue Cramer, the exhibition is built around af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple cycle —‘the great commission’ she received from her ‘High Masters’. The works were made in secret, between 1906 and 1915. Af Klint first undertook a ten-month purification process to hone her focus and self-discipline.
The centrepiece of the cycle and this exhibition is the monumental and exuberantly colourful The Ten Largest (1907). These paintings (each over three metres tall) give abstract form to the four stages of human life. The three-part Altarpieces (1915) is the cumulation of the cycle. Af Klint envisioned that it would occupy the inner sanctum of the grand spiral temple that would eventually be built to house her art. Visitors would ascend through the temple and her work until they reached these paintings, which propose a path to enlightenment through the integration of spirit and matter.
The exhibition also features less known elements of af Klint’s output, including early botanical studies, and automatic drawings undertaken with The Five—a group of women artists who used séance and prayer to channel invisible forces into art. A selection of late watercolours, some never previously exhibited, push her abstraction into less spiritual, more sensory realms. Equally rare are notebooks in which af Klint charted fastidiously her ideas and processes. Some are inscribed ‘+x’, the sign she used to indicate the material to be kept hidden away for that receptive future moment.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is one of the most important exhibitions ever staged in New Zealand. It is presented with the cooperation of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm, and in association with Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. The accompanying book includes essays by Sue Cramer, Nicholas Chambers, Jennifer Higgie, Aaron Lister, and Julia Voss. It expands the ever-growing discussion around af Klint as one of the most important artists—historical or contemporary—for the current moment.