4 Dec 2021

Jennifer Higgie: the astonishing re-emergence of Hilma af Klint

From Saturday Morning, 10:07 am on 4 December 2021

When Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint died in 1944, she left behind more than 1300 works, only seen by a handful of people. The discovery of her paintings decades later has turned art history on its head, and an exhibition of her work at The Guggenheim in New York was the most visited in the gallery's history.  

Jennifer Higgie co-authored the book Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen. She is the producer of podcast series  Bow Down: Women in Art History and her next book features Klint: The Other Side: Women, Art and the Spirit World is out in 2022 with an accompanying BBC radio series.

Higgie first came to know about Klint when a friend of hers put on a mysterious art show at an abandoned house in Bloomsbury called Dear Hilma.

“It was her dedication to Hilma af Klint and I’d never heard of Hilma af Klint and she told me she was this spiritualist and mystic and an incredible painter. She’d seen some of her paintings at a small show in Ireland.

"Cut forward to a couple of years and Camden Art Centre put on a small show of Klint and I went along and I think since that moment I’ve become an uber fan because they were just extraordinary.”

The main body of work Klint is known for was made between 1904 and 1916 and Higgie says it was like nothing else at the time.

“It blows art history out of the water because the idea that a man invented abstraction in 1911, Kandinsky, is just not true. She was making this radical work that very few people had seen. It’s joyous, it’s strange, it’s inventive, it’s mysterious, it’s infinitely rewarding the longer you spend with it.”

There’s a misconception that Klint had asked that her works not be seen after her death. Higgie says it was actually just some works from her notebooks she didn’t want to be public. Her works, which numbered in the thousands, were entrusted to her nephew who found he couldn’t possibly safely store them all.

“He went to the Moderna museum in 1970, which is the preeminent modern art museum in Sweden, and asked the then-director, Pontus Hultén, if he would like to be offered the whole af Klint estate to the Moderna museum so that they could look after it and show it and document it. Hultén didn’t even look at the stuff and turned him down on the account that she was a spiritualist, which is crazy given most modernist artists at the turn of the century were spiritualists.”

Klint, Kandinsky, and other influential artists and people such as Rudolf Steiner were primarily attracted to theosophy which drew on Asian religions and occultism. Steiner later moved away from theosophy because he was drawn to Christianity and began anthroposophy.

Klint and Steiner were known to each other and Higgie says she spoke to a man who’s recently gone through Klint’s notebooks to find out more about their relationship.

“Hilma af Klint went to a lot of Steiner’s lectures and thought he was absolutely marvellous and became something of a guru to her. The thing was, that this man the other night at dinner told me, was that we’ve got to remember that Steiner was a superstar and Hilma af Klint, while we all know now she’s a bit of a genius, wasn’t known to anyone and she was just another one of his incredibly interesting fans.

“While he did pay her some attention, he probably didn’t pay the kind of attention that she was properly due given what we know now about her work. But he did stay in contact with her.”

Klint and her girlfriend would sometimes visit Steiner at his home and foundation in Germany and Higgie says it was likely she would have wanted to exhibit her work there but, while Steiner was encouraging, he wasn’t enamoured with her paintings.

Higgie says Klint first became interested in spiritualism while she was at art school in Stockholm. Like many others, her interest spawned out of developments in technology.

“Things like the X-ray were being invented and radiograms and what was once invisible was made visible. This was used as an argument for spiritualists to say, if we can see someone’s insides or hear their voice from the other side of the world, maybe we can also communicate with the spirit realm.”

Her sister died of the flu when Klint was just 17 which increased her interest in communicating with the spirit realm.

“She thought maybe she could find out if her sister was OK in a different spiritual realm.”

While a passing knowledge of the belief system is helpful in framing Klint’s art, it’s by no means necessary to appreciate it.

“The idea of her work, or my reading of it, is that she really believed, she had this sort of utopian idea of art; to be able to communicate something wonderful without people necessarily knowing the details of precisely what it was she was communicating.

“Ironically, she often didn’t know what she was communicating because she said she was a conduit for the spirit and she spent the rest of her life trying to understand herself what it was she had created. To appreciate a beautiful piece of music, you don’t need to know what key it was written in. I think her work is a bit like that. It’s so beautiful, it’s so joyful, there is something about it that even the uninitiated, someone who has no interest in spiritualism, can see these things and appreciate them for the beautiful things that they are.”

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is at City Gallery Wellington until 27 March.