Painting the Beyond

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future

an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Tracey Bashkoff
Guggenheim Museum, 243 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Artbook/D.A.P.)
Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood, 1907 by Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm
Hilma af Klint: Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood, 1907

Born in 1862 to a prominent Swedish family (her great-grandfather had been ennobled for services as a naval officer), Hilma af Klint was a skilled painter of portraits and landscapes who in the first decades of the twentieth century began making hundreds of strange pictures articulating the fluid relations between spirit and matter. Many have no basis in the visible world, and their early dates—in some cases years before such benchmark abstract paintings as Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VII (1913) or Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915)—have led to excited claims for af Klint as the unknown woman who pipped all the famous men to the post. This is the seductive pitch behind the Guggenheim’s much-lauded exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” the first comprehensive American overview of the artist now hailed, some seven decades after her death, as the female progenitor of modernist abstraction. Even if this were true—and it really isn’t—it would be the least material or interesting thing about this ecstatic and perplexing body of work.

Af Klint was one of many artists (including Kandinsky and Malevich) drawn to the esoteric philosophies that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and the like. But af Klint’s engagement went deeper than most, and she was tenacious in her pursuit of personal spiritual contact. Her greatest work, the series of 193 Paintings for the Temple, was made by channeling spirit-masters who she claimed moved her hand and planted images in her mind. She spent the rest of her life mulling over what they gave her.

When af Klint died in 1944, she left more than 1,200 paintings, 134 notebooks and sketchbooks, and more than 26,000 manuscript pages to her nephew, a vice-admiral in the Swedish navy. She also gave instructions that her work not be shown for twenty years after her death. She was lucky in her relations: the family not only adhered to the moratorium, they established a foundation to ensure that the paintings and documentation stayed together. Beginning with her inclusion in the 1986–1987 Los Angeles County Museum of Art show “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985,” awareness of af Klint began to percolate, and recent years have brought a burst of new scholarship; an ambitious traveling survey organized by Stockholm’s Moderna Museet as well as, most recently, concurrent exhibitions in New York and Munich; and the English-language publication of several of her notebooks. It would appear that af Klint’s moment has come at last: the work is now being seen by thousands, though whether they are ready to receive its message is another question.

Apart from her nonconforming beliefs, af Klint led a fairly staid life. She trained…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.