Voksenlivet1907 by Hilma Af Klint

Group IV, No. 7, The Ten Largest, Adulthood, 1907.

Tempera on paper mounted on canvas.

...a long under-recognized innovator of abstract art. Af Klint had begun producing nonobjective paintings by 1906, significantly before Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and others widely considered trailblazers of the movement to free artwork of representational content. The bold color palettes and expansive formats af Klint frequently used were also like little else that had been seen before. Despite her prescience, af Klint was not well known during her lifetime or the decades following her death. Though she showed her portraits and landscapes, which were rendered in a deft academic style, she produced her more groundbreaking works as part of her spiritual practice. She hoped to install many of them in a spiral-shaped temple, but the building never came to fruition, and the works remained largely unseen. In her turn to abstraction, af Klint engaged many of the same cultural currents that came to inform the work of her better-known peers, including theosophy and anthroposophy, spiritualism, and major scientific discoveries of the period, such as evolution and atomic theory. When af Klint died in 1944, she stipulated that her work not be shown for another 20 years; she believed the world was not yet ready to understand her radically forward-looking compositions. Only over the past three decades have her paintings and works on paper begun to gain widespread attention.

Astonishing as these paintings are, however, any attempt to read them in purely formal terms seems misplaced. For a start, written language continually features in them—cursive letters and text annotating the imagery, or arranged into mysterious charts, or radiating rays of light. And while certain shapes are definitely nonfigurative, they mix with recognizable elements: a Christian orb-and-cross; things that look like snakes or sperm; a spiraling, snail-shell motif. Whatever the nature of af Klint as an artist, it seems fair to say that she wouldn’t have recognized herself as an abstractionist, at least not according to the standard meaning of the term as it developed under modernism.

...All sorts of esoteric currents run together in this fascinating body of work. There is color symbolism, for example, with blue meant to designate femininity, yellow masculinity, and green a universal oneness. There are Theosophist beliefs, in the repeated use of the letters “U” and “W” to signify, respectively, spiritual and material realms. Such dualistic approaches continue in the series “The Swan” (1914–15) and “The Dove” (1915)—also from “The Paintings for the Temple”—whose prismatic, intersecting patterns derive from blends of Christian iconography and alchemical concepts. Yet throughout her cycle of paintings, af Klint showed a strong interest in scientific theories and observations—whether by zooming in to a magical, microscopic, cell-like world in the appropriately named suite “The Ten Largest” (1907) or, in the “Evolution” sequence (1908), by tracing a reverse Darwinian path from Vitruvian Man–type figures back to a diagrammatic, ornately cosmological origin.
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Period / movement: abstract