Focus: Hilma Af Klint
Wassily Kandinsky is generally regarded as the pioneer of abstract art. However, a Swedish woman called Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) might claim that title
When Wassily Kandinsky wrote to his New York gallerist Jerome Neumann in December 1935, he was clearly anxious to reassure him once again that he had painted his first abstract picture in 1911: ‘Indeed, it’s the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style. A “historic painting”, in other words.’ Sadly, this historic painting was thought lost. The artist neglected to take it with him when he left Russia in 1921 for Germany, before later moving to France. He knew the art world was engaged in a contest. To be acknowledged as having produced the first abstract painting had become a highly coveted prize. Which modern artist could claim that prize was still being fought over. The other leading candidates were František Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. What Kandinsky did not know is that a Swedish painter by the name of Hilma af Klint had created her first abstract painting in her Stockholm studio in 1906, five years before him. What’s more, she had taken the same path towards abstraction. Without knowing of each other’s existence, the two artists seem to have travelled for a long way like two trains on the same tracks. Klint arrived before Kandinsky.
Who was Hilma af Klint? And how did she become an artist? Two aspects of her biography would give her an advantage. First, the admiral’s daughter was born in 1862 in Sweden, a country that permitted women to study art well before France, Germany or Italy. As a result, she was able to enrol at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1882. After graduating five years later, she took the lease on a studio in the city’s artists’ quarter and gradually gained recognition as a landscape and portrait painter. She also had a passion for the study of plants and animals, and in 1900/1901 worked as a draughtswoman for the veterinary institute.
Secondly, Klint was born into a protestant family and came into early contact with theosophy. It doesn’t take a friend of the esoteric to see the advantages that theosophy could offer a young artist. In the nineteenth century no one doubted that great works depended on equally great inspiration. Hardly anyone, however, believed that when women painted, the higher powers came into play. Theosophy, founded by a woman (the Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky), viewed things differently. Women were welcomed as members and held senior positions. In short, it was the first religious organisation in Europe that did not discriminate against women. Klint was seventeen when she attended her first spiritualist seance…….