Hilma af Klint 1862-1944
Standing in the High Gallery at the base of the Guggenheim Museum’s slow spiral, I feel myself rise up onto my tip-toes. Ten immense paintings by Hilma af Klint, which make up a series obviously titled “The Ten Largest,” reach towards the sky as rounded shapes, cursive texts, and curlicues float through the celestial backgrounds of pink-purples and soft indigos. In “The Ten Largest, No. 4, Youth,” four long circles overlap like a four-leafed venn diagram or, perhaps, the nucleus of a helium atom. They seem to drift slowly up to the surface, as if globules moving through lava lamp goo, and I want to be carried along with them.
The exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” takes us chronologically through af Klint’s abstract work from 1906 through 1920 as we ascend through the museum. Themes of symbolism are carried throughout, but while the shapes in “The Ten Largest” feel like atoms drifting off into the gravity-negative space of the universe, the abstractions in af Klint’s later paintings are more anchored to the canvas, grounded and grounding. These later works are just as imaginative, surprising, and inexplicably beautiful, even if sometimes less joyous in color; “The Swan, No. 1” (1915), for instance, is almost entirely black and white, a yin-yang of black swan lying beak-to-red beak against complementary white swan. As we move through “The Swan” series, what begins as a representational depiction of two swans becomes more and more abstract with each successive painting, until the swans are but a bulls-eye of concentric circles against a square, red canvas in “The Swan, No. 17.” From the geometry of her later works emerges a precision that makes them feel almost scientific. If her early paintings are observations of the organic, her later ones are diagrams of solutions to the universe’s secrets.
It’s surprising to realize af Klint painted “The Ten Largest” series in 1907, partly because that was several years before Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian—the male artists historically accredited as forefathers of abstract art—began to experiment with their own abstractions. The Guggenheim’s retrospective of af Klint’s abstract work repositions af Klint as the true pioneer of abstract art, boldly challenging historicity and the over-representation of male artists in the known canon. This exhibition is also af Klint’s first major solo show in the U.S.
But even more surprising is how contemporary her paintings feel. Why has it taken so long—more than an entire century—for af Klint to receive the recognition she deserves? The answer lies, primarily, in the title of the exhibition: “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” She actively chose not to exhibit her works during her lifetime, requesting instead that her paintings not be shown until twenty years after her death. In actuality, it took much longer than 20 years; she died in 1944.
When I reached the end of the exhibition, I leaned over the railing of the Guggenheim’s spiral at the grandness of it all—her vision, her ambition, her paintings. I had wondered how she could be so confident that her work would be better received in the future, but it wasn’t until weeks later that I knew: it wasn’t ego. It was faith. After all, af Klint’s grandest project was “The Paintings for the Temples,” which she worked on from 1906 to 1915, creating an incredible 193 paintings. She imagined they’d be installed in a spiral temple, and what is the Guggenheim but just that?
Now, I wonder instead when she realized that no one would understand her paintings—understand her. I can imagine the ache of heartbreak, of loneliness, and it makes sense why she, like so many of us do, turned to faith. Sometimes there’s nothing else to do but to have faith and to trust that others will, at the very least, try to understand you.