The Ten Largest, No. 3, Ungdommen; Youth, Group IV1907 by Hilma Af Klint

....It was here, in 1904, that Af Klint received a “commission” from an entity named Amaliel who told her to paint on “an astral plane” and represent the “immortal aspects of man”. Between 1906-1915, there followed 193 paintings – an astonishing outpouring – known as the Paintings for the Temple. Whatever one’s misgivings about the occult, she worked as if possessed – in the grip of what can only be described as inspiration. She explained that the pictures were painted “through” her with “force” – a divine dictation: “I had no idea what they were supposed to depict… I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”

It is as if Af Klint has appeared out of nowhere – inconveniently for art historians. And the question she raises will not recede: was she a quirky outsider, or was she Europe’s first abstract painter, central to the history of abstract art?

She stipulated in her will that her work should not be shown until 20 years after her death

And why are we only hearing about her now? Hilma af Klint must partly answer – or answer for – this herself. When she died, aged 81, in 1944, she stipulated in her will that her work – 1,200 paintings, 100 texts and 26,000 pages of notes – should not be shown until 20 years after her death. It was not until the 1986 Los Angeles show The Spiritual in Art that her work was seen in public, and although other shows have followed, it is through Stockholm’s sensational 2013 exhibition, Pioneer of Abstraction, that she has blazed into view internationally – it was the most popular exhibition the Moderna Museet has ever held. And now, thanks to this show, she is coming to London’s Serpentine Gallery in an exhibition entitled Painting the Unseen (3 March – 22 May). A thrilling selection from the Paintings for the Temple will include the most staggering of all her works: a group of works called the Ten Largest (eight of which will be shown). These pictures, oils and tempera on paper, are more than 10 feet tall: free-wheeling, psychedelic, animated with fat snail shells, perky inverted commas, unspooling threads, against orange, rose and dusky blue. Man’s evolution is their sober subject, but their gaiety recalls Matisse (Af Klint predates him too).

If I had to sum up the work, I’d borrow William Blake’s words: “Energy is eternal delight.” This is painting to gladden the eye (even before you have mugged up on the symbolism). And the Serpentine’s vote of confidence in it could not be clearer: she is the earliest painter to be shown in a one-person exhibition at the gallery.

On Thursday morning, walking to the Moderna Museet, I am struck by the uncanny silence in Stockholm, the wide pavements for crowds that never materialise, the sense that everything is clean and cold, candles glimpsed through every window, great white boats parked on the water. There is a feeling that everything about this handsome city is a pledge against the dark, a wait for the light. The water has splintered ice in it, clinking as if in a cocktail glass. And it was here that Hilma was born on 26 October 1862. I am about to meet her great-nephew, Johan af Klint, and Iris Müller-Westermann, curator of the Af Klint show. And I am thinking of Hilma’s attempts to access the other side as I prepare in a modern, seance-free way to summon her.

While waiting for Johan to arrive, Müller-Westermann – her brimming enthusiasm for Af Klint infectious – tells me how the 2013 show’s popularity exceeded her wildest dreams. She describes “nice mothers, in control and perfectly dressed – it is chic to come to this museum – who found themselves crying but unable to explain”. The show moved men too – it was “fantastic”, she says. She had not realised Hilma would touch people in this way. It is obvious how personal this painter is to Müller-Westermann – the life and the work – how anxious she is that the artist be understood. She does not care whether or not she is Europe’s first abstract painter. What she is passionate about is that art-historical wrangles should not get in the way of work that needs to be seen....
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Period / movement: abstract