Art-historical reputations exist within an ocean of time, drifting along on currents of taste or rising above them like islands on the horizon. Then there are the rare cases where a career seems to wash up like a message in a bottle, precipitating a moment of wonder from the viewer. Such is the case with Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), whose work is now on view at the Guggenheim.
To call this show a revelation would be selling it short: Here is a major painter who, with the exception of a 1986 group exhibition and a 2013 survey in her native Sweden, has been largely omitted from the annals of early Modernism, despite the fact that she broke through to abstraction years before the canonical names—Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich—credited with the achievement. Much of this is due to Klint being female, obviously, and in that respect, the exhibit should elevate her to the ranks of iconic role models such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama.
The daughter of a Swedish naval officer, Klint began her studies at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1882, when very few women were admitted. There, she painted portraits and landscapes in the Impressionistic mode that was favored in fin de siècle academic circles. She continued to exhibit such work throughout her life, but behind closed doors, something extraordinary was brewing—something she kept hidden.
During the late 19th century, spiritualism was in vogue, with the most fashionable teachings being promulgated by the likes of the Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky and the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, a proponent of “esoteric science.” Inspired by them, Klint formulated her own mystical tenets, which found expression in nonfigurative paintings that were completely unlike anything by her contemporaries.
Klint envisioned building a temple to her beliefs, but the idea was more of a metaphorical framework than an actual structure. Nonetheless, her first forays into abstraction were created expressly for its interior.
Titled “Paintings for the Temple” and created between 1906 and 1915, the project comprises several subgroups—among them, the series “The Ten Largest,” which occupies the show’s first gallery. They are startlingly huge, measuring more than 10 feet by 7 feet. Limned in eye-popping tempera colors on canvas-mounted paper and filled with energetic organic and geometric shapes derived from Swedish folk art, these compositions were created, Klint claimed, via an alter ego who transmitted ecstatic visions to the artist (a notion she eventually dispensed with). Given their scale and the way Klint painted them as a sort of performance piece, they arguably anticipated aspects of Abstract Expressionism 40 years later.
Other offerings (based, for example, on Darwin’s theory of evolution or the legend of Parzival) are just as stupendous, demonstrating that while Klint shed her alter ego, she remained true to her esoteric views. This proved off-putting to some. No less a personage than Steiner himself reacted negatively to Klint’s work when she showed it to him—so much so that she decided to prohibit anyone from seeing the abstractions until 20 years after her death.
Ultimately, the visual impact of the work supersedes the arcane logic behind it. Indeed, to appreciate Klint, it’s probably best to leave that aside, and just let her art wash over you like an outgoing tide, depositing treasures on a beach.