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About Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) is one of Sweden’s most celebrated artists, but for a long time she was almost completely unknown. Today she is internationally recognised for her pioneering role in abstract art.

After finishing her studies at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1889, af Klint established herself as an artist in Stockholm, producing among other works portraits, landscapes and illustrations of a fairly conventional nature. She developed an interest in spiritualism in her youth and later also in the Hindu-Christian theosophy of Annie Besant and Rosicrucian anthroposophy.

Movements such as these had gained widespread popularity and were part of the Zeitgeist, especially among the upper classes and in artistic and literary circles, as people sought to reconcile religious beliefs with scientific advances. af Klint’s traditional paintings provided a source of income, but what she later referred to as her ‘great commission’ remained a separate activity. Only spiritually interested audiences knew about these works. She showed them to like-minded individuals but did not want the general public to see them. She agreed with Rudolf Steiner that mankind was not yet morally evolved enough to understand the message and be initiated in the mysteries.

Much of Hilma af Klint’s work process was collaborative. While a student, she met Anna Cassel (1860–1937), who was to become one of her closest friends and colleagues. In 1896, together with Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman and Mathilda Nilsson, they formed a Christian group called The Five, which explored the spiritual world through prayer, meditation and séances. The group was convinced they could communicate with mystic beings, which they called The High Masters, when they entered a trance-like state. Sigrid Hedman was the main recipient of spiritual messages, while Anna Cassel occasionally received them. As Hedman talked in a trance, the others would make a record of the messages, mostly written by hand but sometimes also in automatic drawings or psychographs. af Klint was relatively passive in the group and did not act as a medium.

The last séance of The Five was held in May 1907, with the group finally breaking up at Christmas 1907. af Klint had wished to be recognised as the leader of the group, which the other members found hard to accept. After the group dissolved, af Klint focused solely on her spiritual work in collaboration with a new group – this work is today known as The Paintings for the Temple.

Hilma af Klint – biography

1862 Hilma af Klint is born on 26 October at Karlberg Palace outside Stockholm.

1882–1889 Studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm.

1886–1914 Regularly shows her traditional art in exhibitions, mostly organised by the Swedish Association for Art (Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening).

1888 Is one of three prize winners in the category of human figure painting at the Academy and receives a grant, in person, from King Oscar II.

1896–1897 Joins the spiritual circle the Edelweiss Society (Edelweissförbundet) and develops some of her key beliefs as a member. Among them are the idea of building a temple, the duality of twin souls, and the Nordic region as a chosen place to start a new religion.

1896 The group The Five (De Fem), consisting of Sigrid Hedman, Cornelia Cederberg, Mathilda Nilsson, Anna Cassel and Hilma af Klint, is formed. The meetings are documented in notebooks through automatic writing and sketching.

1898 Her father, Fredrik Victor af Klint, dies.

1899 Moves with her mother to Brahegatan 52 in Stockholm.

1900–1901 Together with Anna Cassel illustrates a book on horse surgery, Grunddragen af hästens operativa speciella kirurgi, by Swedish veterinarian John Vennerholm.

1902–1908 Rents a studio at Hamngatan 9 in Stockholm.

1903 Travels to Germany, and most likely also to Italy, with Anna Cassel.

1906 Starting in October, produces one hundred and twenty sketches with Anna Cassel for their first spiritual paintings. Swedish art historian Åke Fant later calls this first series Primordial Chaos.

1907 Paints the series Eros, The Great Figure Paintings and The Ten Largest. Works in a building with shared studio space at Hamngatan 5 above Blanch’s Café together with Alma Arnell and Lotten Rönquist. The group The Five disbands. Af Klint starts to develop her great interest in Rudolf Steiner’s Rosicrucian theosophy, later known as Anthroposophy. A new group is formed.

1908 Meets Steiner in the spring at his lecture on Rosicrucianism in Stockholm. In June, she writes and asks him whether he could pose as the mythical founder of the Rosicrucian Order, Christian Rosenkreutz. She also asks him to come see her paintings and continues to meet Steiner on numerous occasions in 1910, 1912 and 1914.

1909–1910 The new group continues their collaboration both through painting and spiritual work. Completes A Female Series. Attends a Theosophical Society conference in Nörrköping where Rudolf Steiner is a speaker. Later that year, Steiner is officially banned from the Theosophical Society, which spurs him to form the Anthroposophical Society in 1913.

1910 Shows her paintings to Rudolf Steiner, most likely during his visit to Stockholm, and he points out which ones he considers symbolically most significant. af Klint joins the Society of Swedish Women Artists (Föreningen Svenska Konstnärinnor) and is appointed secretary. Paints portraits of the physicist Knut Ångström (1857–1910) and the linguistics professor Johan August Lundell (1851–1940).

1913 Buys a house on the island of Munsö in Lake Mälaren outside Stockholm together with her group of female friends. Paints the US series and begins The Tree of Knowledge series. Exhibits her A Male and A Female series. The new group’s spiritual practice is set up on Munsö, with the goal of launching a renewal of Christianity based on theosophical Rosicrucianism.

1914 Exhibits a naturalistic painting at the Baltic fair in Malmö. The First World War breaks out. Begins The Swan series. Rents studios at various addresses in Stockholm, including on Eriksbergsgatan in 1914–1915 and Ynglingagatan in 1915–1916.

1915 The Paintings for the Temple series is completed after she finishes The Tree of Knowledge, The Swan, The Dove and The Altarpieces. In all, The Paintings for the Temple consists of 193 paintings.

1916 Paints the Parsifal series.

1917 A new studio is built on Munsö. Paints The Atom series. Writes a book of 2,000 pages titled Studies of the Life of the Soul.

1918 Moves to Munsö with her mother and the nurse Thomasine Andersson, af Klint’s partner since 1914 and her life-long companion.

1919 Starts work on a notebook written in German entitled Flowers, Mosses and Lichen in collaboration with Thomasine Andersson.

1920–1930 Joins the Anthroposophical Society, which later leads to membership in the Esoteric School at the Goetheanum, Rudolf Steiner’s temple in Dornach, Switzerland. During these years, spends long periods at the Goetheanum accompanied by Thomasine Andersson.

1920 af Klint’s mother Mathilda (née Sonntag) dies.

1922 From now on, af Klint works almost exclusively in watercolour using the wet-on-wet technique, producing more than 400 works. On New Year’s Eve, the Goetheanum in Dornach is destroyed in a fire.

1924 Writes to Rudolf Steiner on 24 April and asks for advice about where her paintings could be useful. Steiner encourages her not to destroy them and believes in their ultimate usefulness.

1926 Moves to Uppsala with Thomasine Andersson. Begins to edit her older notebooks.

1927 Visits Amsterdam in November. Donates her notebook Flowers, Mosses and Lichen and the Tree of Knowledge series to the Goetheanum in Dornach.

1928 Visits London in July and exhibits works at the World Congress for Spiritual Science, an exhibition organised by the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain.

1931 Various sites for the temple are suggested over the course of several years, among them the island of Ven in the Öresund strait, for which a spiral-shaped temple is sketched. Further sketches and notes for the project follow. Moves with Thomasine Andersson to Helsingborg.

1932 Paints Green Flame in Red = Self-Satisfaction.

1934 Paints Virgil and Dante. Moves with Thomasine Andersson to Lund. 1936 Paints Anna Cassel’s Earlier Incarnations, The Image of Lucifer and Gusten in the Underworld.

1937 Gives a lecture at the Anthroposophical Society in Stockholm and asks the Society to protect her paintings. Anna Cassel dies.

1938 On 20 August, shows her paintings and explains the significance of her work to her nephew Erik af Klint (19011981), during his visit to Munsö.

1940 Thomasine Andersson dies.

1941 Completes her last paintings: The First Goetheanum, The Transformation of the Swan into a Human and The New Resurrected Goetheanum.

1943 Turns down an offer from the artist Tyra Kleen to house her paintings in a new building belonging to the Sigtuna Foundation.

1944 In August, moves in with her cousin, Hedvig af Klint, at Ösby in Djursholm outside Stockholm. Hilma af Klint dies on 21 October after a traffic accident. Her nephew Erik af Klint (1901–1981) is the sole heir of her works: some 1,300 paintings, 124 notebooks and more than 26,000 handwritten and typed pages.

1972 Vice Admiral Erik af Klint establishes the Hilma af Klint Foundation in order to preserve her works.

1979 Erik’s son, Gustaf af Klint (1930–2010), succeeds Erik as chairman.

1987 The first international exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s works is held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

1989 The Swedish art historian Åke Fant publishes his ground-breaking work Hilma af Klint: Occult Painter and Abstract Pioneer.

2013 Hilma af Klint has her international breakthrough with Moderna Museet’s exhibition in Stockholm under then director Daniel Birnbaum. This leads to an acclaimed exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018–2019. A series of academic seminars arranged by Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit is held, stimulating new research on Hilma af Klint.

2020–2022 A catalogue raisonné is produced and published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, edited by Kurt Almqvist and Daniel Birnbaum.

2021–2022 The virtual reality experience The Temple featuring Hilma af Klint’s works is produced through a collaboration between Bokförlaget Stolpe, Acute Art and Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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