Art History  •  Famous faces  •  Movements and techniques

Abstract Art Is Feminine: A Shout-Out to Hilma af Klint

In 1911, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, allegedly created a watercolor entitled “First Abstract Watercolour.” As the title suggests, Kandinsky was keen to be perceived as the first abstract artist. In a letter to his gallery owner Jerome Neumann in 1935, it becomes clear:

“Dear Mr. Neumann, unfortunately the only thing missing is the photograph of the first abstract picture painted by me in 1911. It is in fact the very first abstract painting in the world, since at that time not a single painter painted abstract…Yours, Kandinsky.”

– Wassily Kandinsky
Series SUW/UW, Group IX/SUW, No 16. The Swan, no. 16, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

It’s likely that he did not paint the work until 1913 and deliberately pre-dated it. Nevertheless, in art history publications on abstraction, Kandinsky’s name is often found as a pioneer of abstraction. Art history is difficult to paraphrase. In fact, more than 100 years had to pass before the art historian Julia Voss questioned this fact in April 2011 and finally gave Hilma af Klint the honor she deserved. She is the actual pioneer of abstraction!

After a series of small-format abstract paintings in November 1906, af Klint created her first large-format abstract painting the following year. Later, artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian turned to abstraction as well. They could not have known that on a small island in Sweden, Hilma af Klint had already been on this path years before.

Grupp I, nr 16. Urkaos, 1906–1907 HAK016 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk
Inventing abstraction, 1910-1925: How a radical idea changed modern art, New York, MoMA, 23. Dezember 2012-15. April 2013. © MoMA

Nevertheless, the exhibition Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925 followed in 2013 at the MoMA in New York mentioned Hilma af Klint, not with one word. The exhibition catalog states:

“In 1912, in several European cities, a handful of artists—Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay—presented the first abstract pictures to the public.”

In the same year, the necessary correction followed. After years of research, the first comprehensive Hilma af Klint exhibition followed in Stockholm, the title: “Hilma af Klint. A Pioneer of Abstraction”.
For the first time, an attempt has been made to bring together a huge oeuvre ranging from early academic painting to monumental abstractions. With the exhibition, the Moderna Museet made a fervent request for absolution. In 1971, Hilma af Klint’s great-nephew offered some works to the Museum in Stockholm, but the director at the time rejected the offer after hearing that the artist was a medium. He did not even look at the works.

Svanen (The Swan), No. 17, Group 9, Series SUW, October 1914 – March 1915, © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

This is what happened to many female artists who were overlooked and often mentioned in marginal notes in art history. It seems that Hilma af Klint was aware of this fact, for she stipulated in her will that her art should not be publicly exhibited until 20 years after her death. In contrast to her naturalistic works, which were exhibited publicly, her abstract art was part of a larger project. Larger than art itself, Hilma af Klint wanted to make the universe, the invisible, visible.

Altarbilder, Grupp X, Nr 1. Altarbild, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

She was a spiritual woman who had no contacts in the art world whatsoever. She already knew that the male-dominated world would not understand her art. That is why she only showed it to selected people during her lifetime.

Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich were all influenced by contemporary spiritual movements such as Theosophy or Anthroposophy. Like these men, Hilma af Klint lived in a time of scientific discoveries that opened up a world beyond the visible. Abstract painting is preceded by an abstract thought process. Whether it is atoms or spiritual forces that make the abstraction of the visible world mentally possible is irrelevant. The fact is that Hilma af Klint was able to discover the world of abstraction through her mysticism.

Film still: Beyond the visible from Halina Dryschka’s,  17 April 2020 (USA)

Her art is preserved by her descendants to this day. More than 1,300 works of art have only been seen by a small number of people. Her art does not circulate on the art market and cannot be devoured by it, an outstanding circumstance thanks to her descendants.

Group IV, No 2. The Ten Greatest, Childhood, 1907 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klint’s Works

While we can’t undo the past, let’s work towards a richer future where gender and race are not important and celebrate more concisely the past so that women like Hilma af Klint never get neglected again.