Biography of a Star

The first extensive biography of Hilma af Klint offers valuable insights into the artist’s life, yet distorts her work through art-historical cherry picking.

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

Julia Voss’s extensive biography of Hilma af Klint must be regarded as sanctioned straight from the top: the foundation which safeguards and monitors af Klint’s legacy, whose board comprises various experts including two directors of Moderna Museet and is chaired by one of the artist’s relatives. Voss herself is an adjunct board member. Whether the subject of the biography herself would have given this book her authorisation and blessing is less certain.

This book the review at hand is based on the Swedish translation of the German original published in 2020 – is a conventional work and life narrative from cradle (1862) to grave (1944) and is based on several years of archival research, interviews, and trips. The chapters follow the artist’s extensive notes, and where these stop short, the author allows herself to speculate. Voss has a PhD in art history from Humboldt University in Berlin, is an art critic, and has worked as an editor for the prestigious newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The presentation is coloured by a strong pathos to discover this artist whom the author regards as “a sensation” and “the most significant rediscovery in modern art history.” This is backed up, somewhat dramatically, by the following introductory claim: “Several years before artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich felt that abstraction was their invention, she had started to make non-figurative works. First small ones, and then in a huge scale. When Hilma af Klint started doing this she was 44 years old, the page of the calendar was turned to November 1906.”

What Voss also makes clear in the book – the friction vis-à-vis the above left unremarked upon – is that af Klint was notthe first person to paint non-figuratively. We are for example told that the British artist Georgina Hougthon’s watercolours, which she exhibited in 1871, “are non-figurative, abstract, even though this term will be popularised much later.” Camilla Dufour Crosland’s book Light in the Valley: My Experiences of Spiritualism (1857) is also illustrated with “figurative as well as abstract images” by the artists Confidence and Anna Mary Howitt. The book Thought Forms by Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater from 1901 also included an abundance of abstract illustrations. So why highlight the fact that af Klint was doing non-figurative work in November 1906?

To be fair, Voss never actually writes that her subject was the first artist to work with abstraction, but she indicates it in several ways. For example, in the quote above, but also in her presentation of the 1986 exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 in Los Angeles, where af Klint was included along with Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, and others – even though the show’s subtitle alone disproves the claim that af Klint was the first painter to explore abstraction in 1906. This fact is neither mentioned nor discussed by Voss, who instead drastically abstracts from the work’s reception history: “It took another three decades until Moderna Museet [2013] in Stockholm made a large-scale effort to secure a place for the artist in the canon of non-figurative painting, as ‘the pioneer of abstraction’.” A very brief footnote says that af Klint’s work had been exhibited earlier by “small institutions, events which were mainly noted in professional circles.” That a large af Klint exhibition had been shown at Moderna Museet in 1989 – complete with “abstract pioneer” in the subtitle – is, however, not mentioned in the text.

So, it did not take “another three decades” after the exhibition in Los Angeles until af Klint was exhibited at a large institution such as Moderna Museet. The role of art historian Åke Fant for both the 1989 exhibition (co-curated with Lars Nittve) and the one in Los Angeles was crucial, but is noted here just in passing; indeed, this is in line with the museum’s own history writing in 2013, when only one footnote in the catalogue acknowledged its own exhibition from 1989–90.

Hilma af Klint, Self-portrait, unknown date. Wikimedia commons.

By never explicitly writing that af Klint was an “abstract pioneer,” yet unreservedly quoting others who make this claim, the assertion is confirmed, while the author narrowly guards herself from criticism. The fact that the artist’s great-nephew, in the opening paragraph of his afterword, authoritatively declares that “Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) painted abstractly as early as 1906” can of course not be blamed on Voss, but it hardly spoils the mood she builds up in the book and which also becomes its selling point. So even though this biography is clearly worth reading in general and is based on a solid research effort about an admirable and unique artist, it is weighed down in both a strange and sad way by the popular misconception that af Klint was the first to do something that she wasn’t the first to do and which, moreover, she did not care about. This, ultimately, does a disservice to the artists’s lifework.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the insights into the artist’s life with female co-travellers, friends, colleagues, competitors, and lovers. This could have been presented in a sensationalist manner, but is in fact rendered with warmth and care. It could also have given way to simplistic interpretations of the intricate play of symbols and signs that was developed during the sessions of the spiritist group “De Fem” (The Five), and even later – that is, that these could be read as code for lesbian love. Something that would have pleased af Klint is that Voss – and basically everybody else writing on her work today – treats the spirit messages not as autosuggestion, sublimation, or even religious epiphany, but as facts: “A deceased woman’s soul thus speaks to the women through Gregor.”

Using sometimes highly fragmented material, despite the 125 notebooks, the author shows how the artist travelled more than has been previously noted, that she developed an original mix of, among other things, the Order of the Rosicrucian, theosophy, and anthroposophy (Hinduism and Christianity). Voss also refutes the established notion that af Klint never exhibited or wanted to exhibit her esoteric production. In fact, the artist made repeated attempts to show these occult images to like-minded people. She was successful, in the end. In 1913, she contributed images to a spiritualist congress in Stockholm, and in 1928 she was able to show several watercolours at a spiritualist conference in London. Five years later, she decided that these kinds of “images” or “works” would not be made public until twenty years after her death.

Voss makes a big deal of these two exhibitions, but what were they about, who were they for, and what do they say about the artist’s ambitions? They hardly provide any evidence for the claim about af Klint being “the most significant rediscovery in modern art history,” not because she isn’t significant or well worth discovering (at regular intervals), but because she has very little to do with modern art history. Perhaps this sounds like a critique of af Klint, but it’s only a critique of her global fan club, from curators to art historians and not least uncritical art critics, who cannot see (modern) art history as anything else that an avant-garde competition that has internalised the (almost exclusively) male artists’ idea that the abstract image is both a goal and a more or less spiritualised climax in the linear narrative of progression. Af Klint was modern in the sense that she made it as a woman in the partly misogynist Stockholm art academy, painting portraits and landscapes that were very much of the time. However, as is well known, her life was devoted to something entirely different.

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 1. Group IX/SUW. Series SUW/UW, 1915. © The Hilma af Klint Foundation.

What af Klint’s spiritist paintings – the paintings that she mainly received from what she experienced as a number of named spirits – are really about or signify, she did not know herself. But she was convinced that she was approaching truths about the Creation. One question she repeatedly asked while exploring the possibilities of showing these images and directed specifically to the founder of anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner is whether this collected work could be “used and be useful.” This is very illuminating, but Voss and few other contemporary commentators seem to draw any conclusions from such a project description. The question reveals the well-known fact that af Klint submitted to an identity as a medium; consequently, the images become media rather than aesthetic goals. The dignity of these images is one with their subordination to and instrumentality for a higher purpose.

The fact that af Klint also saw all her occult work as one and never thought of selling anything shows that she did not belong to the modern sphere of galleries, collectors, critics, and art museums – other than when she worked with conventional painting for a living. Her mysterious images have therefore been questioned as art, for example, by MoMA’s curator Leah Dickerman, which is reasonable from a traditional historical point of view. At the same time, however, these images have been embraced by the contemporary art world and become something they never were: art, here and now, based on a concept of art that began to evolve during the long 1960s. However, this is not at all what the established art world sees today; the present fixation on art historical priority not only relegates her clandestine images to the past, but also completely misunderstands her work’s intentions by picking its abstract cherries. 

Hilma af Klint used her considerable artistic skills to seek confirmation, which she only received in part, that her images could function in a spiritualistic context. She would probably have felt more at home today in a New Age context or with artists for whom she has become an anachronistic colleague and sister in the here and now. She would probably have been completely bewildered, not to say saddened, by being loved to death by an art establishment that most of all sees her as an initially overlooked but now “rediscovered” abstract modernist. “The outsider of art history has become a star,” as Voss puts it. Not a celestial body, unfortunately, but a celebrity in the most superficial sense of the word.

Let me end with letting some light and oxygen into this historiographic darkness. After all, Voss picks up on some passages in which the artist expresses interests that evoke one of today’s strongest theoretical movements. In 1917, af Klint said she wanted to “penetrate the flowers of the ground” as well as “penetrate the forest, study the wet moss, all the forest trees and the various animals that live in the cool, dark, mass of trees.” In today’s vocabulary, this is considered materialism, but of a completely different kind than the artist sought to escape. With the gaze downwards instead of upwards, towards immanence rather than transcendence, a vibrating throng of life emerges, and perhaps also – what do I know – hints of spirituality.

Dan Karlholm is professor of Art History at Södertörn University in Stockholm. His research deals mainly with historiography and contemporary art as an historical phenomenon. He has published a number of books, including Art of Illusion (2006), Kontemporalism: om samtidskonstens historia och framtid (Swedish only) (2014) and Time in the History of Art (with Keith Moxey) (2018). 

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2018– 2019. Photo: David Heald