Art Out of Sight: Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim

By Laure Brézard

Don’t feel uncultured if you haven’t heard about the painter Hilma af Klint (until last week, I hadn’t either, and until the first solo exhibition in the US dedicated to her opened at the Guggenheim last October, I doubt many people outside the art world had). The Swedish painter’s lack of recognition can seem surprising as she, years before better-known artists like Kandinsky, Klee, Malevitch or Mondrian, was a pioneer in the creation of abstract art. Her shift away from academic techniques and forms of representation goes back as early as 1906, moving towards abstraction and the use of symbolic shapes and colours. Her “Ten Largest” colourful and soothing panels, painted in 1907, seem deceivingly recent. While her visionary, innovative oeuvre seems like it would have deserved earlier, and larger attention, her refusal to have it exhibited at least partly accounts for its lack of exposure. Art made to not be shown – Klint’s approach only makes her work the more fascinating, as she perceived her contemporaries as not ready yet to receive it. She thereby demanded that it only be exhibited twenty years after her death and filled notebooks with explanations intended for future audiences. Her recent coming into the spotlight and critics’ appraisals of her art suggest that indeed, we may finally be ready to appreciate it. Maybe now is the time Klint finally gets the recognition she deserves.

Her floral, colourful and comforting abstract art is tied to her interest in science and spiritualism and desire to ‘make the invisible visible’, especially with her series of 193 “Paintings for the Temple”, which the Guggenheim building could seem to have been designed for. Indeed, Klint’s desire to place the paintings in a spiraling ‘temple’, with their gradual elevation reflecting their spiritual meanings and leading  viewers towards the heavens, fits perfectly in the spiraling structure of the Guggenheim building.

Featuring planets, zodiac signs, mystical geometry symbols and an abstract language explained in her notes, her works were inspired by ‘séances’ during which Klint and her medium friends, under the name  “the Five”, connected with spirits, whom they saw as ‘high masters’ guiding their automatic drawings. As such, these intend to represent the spirit of the world and carry an important philosophical and religious load which, while quite out of my reach, appears to have much to offer for anyone willing to undertake deeper studies of their meanings. Even for those of us who don’t quite grasp their sense, I believe that anyone can, as I do, enjoy the lively, powerful works of this revolutionary artist and see if we are indeed now ready to accept them.

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