A New Museum for Hilma af Klint

Behind the decision to build a Hilma af Klint-museum there is a long-standing conflict between the artist’s living relatives and the anthroposophical movement in Sweden.

Proposal for a Hilma af Klint-museum by Norwegian architecture firm Snöhetta. Image: Snöhetta.

A plan to build a museum dedicated to Hilma af Klint in Järna was pushed through last week. Järna is center to the anthroposophical movement in Sweden, a small town where around 2,000 people are employed in different anthroposophical businesses in biodynamic foods, culture and education. The new museum will be designed by Norwegian firm Snöhetta, and will house exhibitions for contemporary art as well as spaces for seminars and research, adjacent to a new hotel and conference center.

The decision to build a new museum follows a long-term conflict between the living relatives of Hilma af Klint and representatives of the anthroposophical movement, to which the artist was close. According to several historical sources, founder of anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner was the only one allowed to see Klint’s spiritist paintings while she was alive. Since the 1970’s, Klint’s remaining works – which are said to include over 1000 paintings and 26000 drawings – are owned by a foundation in her name. The statutes say that the majority of the board should be members of the anthroposophical movement, while the chairman should be from the af Klint family.

Hilma af Klint.

Using af Klint to save anthroposophy

The board’s composition has led to a fierce battle over interpretation between the af Klint family and today’s anthroposophic community. The conflict is about managing af Klint’s works, and has resulted in a police report as well as several legal processes.

Former chairman of the af Klint foundation, Johan af Klint, has fought against plans for a museum in Järna for several years. He contends that reasons for the project are mainly financial, and have nothing to do with caring for Hilma af Klint’s work.

–The anthroposophic movement in Sweden is on its knees. They currently have around 1500 members and they’re getting fewer and older, Johan af Klint tells Kunstkritikk. That is why they want to build a large conference center and museum of Hilma af Klint’s work. My opinion is that they want to use the work and name of Hilma af Klint to save the anthroposophic movement in Sweden.

Selling works to fund the museum

Anders Kumlander was previously the secretary-general of the Anthroposophical Society, and is now the chairman of Kristallen Foundation that has been involved in the plan for the new museum. Kumlander opposes Johan af Klint’s view, and emphasizes that an agreement between Kristallen Foundation and the Hilma af Klint Foundation has been in place for a long time. The idea is to include 50–80 of her works in the planned museum.

– Presently, however, no funding has been secured, Kumlander tells Kunstkritikk. According to prior estimates, the museum would cost 60 million to build and another 10 million a year to run. Johan af Klint is adamant that several board member with ties to anthroposophy therefore have been willing to sell works by Hilma af Klint to fund the museum, which has been one of the reasons for the conflict between the anthroposophists and the af Klint family.

Kumlander has disputed this claim all along, however, and he maintains that there never has been a plan to sell works from the collection.

Interior view from the proposed museum in Järna. Image: Snöhetta.

Should be hanging at Tate and Pompidou

The recent interest in Hilma af Klint goes back to Moderna Museet’s exhibition, Hilma af Klint – Abstract Pioneer in 2013. The exhibition travelled internationally to several museums, and is said to be Moderna Museet’s most reviewed exhibition ever. Daniel Birnbaum, director of Moderna Museet, says that the conflict between the anthroposophists in Järna and the af Klint family could be resolved by seeking a different way to secure Hilma af Klint’s status as an artist.

– I’m not against building the museum, but I don’t think that all her works should be in one place, Birnbaum tells Kunstkritikk.

– Hilma af Klint made around 1400 paintings, which should be enough for a museum and much more. If I and many others are right that this is an interesting artist, her works should be hanging at the great institutions such as Pompidou and Tate. I think that the foundation should donate or deposit paintings to these institutions.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest No 2, 1907.

Need to be put on the art market

Since before he became director of Moderna Museet, Daniel Birnbaum says, his ambition has been to seek international acknowledgement for two Swedish artists: Öyvind Fahlström and Hilma af Klint

– Hilma af Klint was considered interesting already in the late 80’s. We were several critics who wrote about her then. I think that she is unique. Historically, nobody was doing what she did, and she is incomparable to Kandinsky whose work won great acclaim from his contemporaries already 100 years ago.

Asked if af Klint could gain international and art historical recognition without her work being sold on the art market, his answer is definitely no.

– What would Picasso have been without a lobby consisting of collectors, gallerists and auction houses to spread the word about his work? Compare this to a solitary woman without a collector behind her and who rarely showed her works to anyone while she was alive. One could, for example, sell paintings on the condition that they are donated to a museum, Birnbaum points out.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 3 Youth, Group IV, 1907.

A more professional board

Presently both parties of the conflict say they are willing to proceed by renegotiating the agreement that regulates the anthroposophists’ right to exhibit parts of the foundation’s collection. The agreement, which has not been made public, gives the anthroposophists a degree of access to the works of Hilma of Klint that is “unbalanced”, according to Johan af Klint. This is the main obstacle to implementing some of the suggestions made by Birnbaum, he contends.

Johan af Klint goes on to tell Kunstkritikk that, for some time, he has wanted to professionalize the board, with the purpose to secure international recognition for Hilma af Klint.

– I have already spoken with three professionals, from the fields of religion studies and art among others, from Holland, Germany and Sweden, who are willing to join the board. But this requires that the conflict is settled. A more powerful foundation would serve the museum in Järna as well, stresses af Klint. If the anthroposophists are willing to continue the interrupted negotiations, we would be as well, he concludes.

The future of the artist’s work at stake

Yet another aspect of the conflict is that commitment to the new museum has been facilitated through the anthroposophical society Hilma af Klint Culture Center (HAKKC), which according to Johan af Klint is breaking the family’s rule against the anthroposophists using the name Hilma af Klint for their business. He is nevertheless not strictly opposed to the idea of a museum in Järna. The problem is that the whole thing has been conducted as an “anthroposophical project”, and that the Hilma af Klint Foundation has been excluded from the planning process.

It is uncertain whether the use of the family name for the planned businesses will be contested by the af Klint family. The status of Hilma af Klint in art history is uncertain as well. In MoMA’s massive exhibition Inventing Abstraction 1910–1925 (2013) Hilma af Klint was not included, as Jerry Saltz and others pointed out in their critique. If Hilma af Klint’s work must make its way through the international art market, the big institutions or a small museum in Järna is presently a decision for the guardians of her estate.

The Hilma af Klint-museum will be located next to the existing, anthroposophical cultural center in Järna. Photo: Wikimedia.