Recently, I attended an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum—one of the premier modern art museums in the world and certainly a favorite of mine to visit. The building itself is integral to the experience of the art on display and the Guggenheim collection is unrivaled as far as private collections are concerned. On this day though, I wasn’t there to see the usual Guggenheim collection. I was there to see the latest exhibit of the museum; a showcase consisting of the work of a single artist which dominates the museum’s space and provides a unique opportunity to experience art in the way an artist intended (often difficult to achieve outside of installation art or an artist’s original showcase).
The artist in question is Hilma af Klint, a woman many had never heard of until now. Af Klint was as Swedish artist whose work dates from the late 19th century to the second World War. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and, greatly talented, graduated with honors in 1887. It doesn’t hurt to mention that she was also one of the first women even allowed to study at the Academy. While much of her early work includes traditional styles of watercolor botanicals, classical pastorals, and impressionist self-portraits, it’s the later work which comes from her involvement with spiritualism and theosophy that is the main body of her creations and the works the Guggenheim exhibit reveals to the public for the first time.
Hilma af Klint’s work is classified solidly in the genre of abstract art and, dating from 1906 on, provides some of the earliest examples of non-objective abstraction ever. Her work predates Mondrian and Kandinsky (the two are notably referred to as the pioneers of abstract art) by upwards of 3 decades. So why are we just hearing about this now? Af Klint knew that she was breaking new ground as she was creating her work and she had a sense that the world wasn’t ready for the kind of art she wanted to give so she made it clear that she didn’t want her paintings shown to the public until several years after her death. She believed that she was painting for the future.
The collection on display at the museum is referred to by af Klint as The Paintings for the Temple and the 150 some odd pieces make up only a portion of her total body of work. Each piece combines science and spirituality together with deeply geometric aesthetics and a distinctly feminine point of view. Claiming that much, if not all, of her work is divinely inspired by spirits she encountered through meditation and séances held with a small group of women known as “The Five”, Hilma’s Paintings for the Temple are meant to serve as a kind of religious text or guide on the path to spiritual enlightenment. This is where the Guggenheim museum fulfills a role practically no other museum could.
While creating this collection between 1906 and 1915, af Klint made notes and drew sketches for the kind of building in which she wished the pieces to be displayed. She indicated a kind of white tower which spirals upward, leading viewers toward the heavens until finally reaching enlightenment. The unique spiraling design of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright no less than 35 years after af Klint completed Paintings for the Temple as a relative unknown, serves as the literal ideal venue to view The Paintings.
Personally, I found af Klint’s work enchanting. The exhibit begins with a series of 10 larger-than-life sized paintings which the artist intended to document the human life from conception to death. Though overwhelming in scale, the paintings take on a delicate joviality and the floral folk art motif combined with her signature swirling spirals set up the rest of the exhibit as an experience of positivity and celebration rather than cynicism. Strong geometric lines, powerful nature-inspired imagery, and even (often) written language lend a wholeness to the collection. One really gets the sense that af Klint’s work is comprehensive and meant to deal with every aspect of life, the earth, scientific thought, and spirituality as well as representing her own desire to reconcile all of it within herself.
For those of you who wish to see the exhibit, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future will be on display at the Guggenheim until April 28th. you can find ticket information here.