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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hilma af Klint

The Swan (left) by Hilma af Klint, a sweatshirt (right) from
Swedish designer, Jonny Johansson.
Composition with yellow, Blue, and Red,
1927, Piet Mondrian
Yesterday in discussing the work of Franz Kline, I made mention of the fact that, in essence, many people don't like his work. At the end I displayed very eye-catching examples of how a designer, inspired by Kline, adapted his bold slashes of black on white to his male fashion collection. Over the years I've encountered many students, not to mention their parents, who simply couldn't stand any kind of abstract art, and have even criticized its being taught in public schools. Yet, these same people (women usually) proudly buy and wear quite beautifully the same abstract art they claim to dislike so vehemently. Why is that? They wouldn't be caught dead with the stuff on their walls, but might very easily choose to be buried in it. Piet Mondrian (right) has often had his bold black lines an colorful rectangles adapted to high fashion. The same goes for van Gogh, Picasso (by his own daughter, no less), and Salvador Dali, to name only a few (I, myself, have neckties with work inspired by Dali and van Gogh). Of course not all these artists chose Abstract Expressionism, but reversing that, very often the prints women wear would make excellent abstract paintings. The Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint's The Swan (above) joins the list or artists mentioned above.
The Swan No. 16, 1915, Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint Self-portrait, ca. 1890s
Hilma af Klint is an interesting case with regard to abstract art. Most of her work is far more abstract than the swans depicted at top. The actual title of the work which inspired the sweatshirt is The Swan No. 1. Above is the one of several which followed it, The Swan No. 16, from 1915. She painted most of her works in an abstract mode, but could easily switch back and forth. Moreover, as you can see from the dates, she was in on the "ground floor" where abstraction was concerned (maybe what you'd call the sub-basement). Though it's likely they didn't know of one another's work, Klint was painting abstractly in Sweden at roughly the same time as Wassily Kandinsky in Russia. Actually, except for the fact that there's an abysmal lack of reliable dates associated with Klint's work, a case could easily be made that she got there first. Some records indicate she made her first abstract painting about 1906. Kandinsky didn't come along with his First Abstract Watercolor (below, right) until 1910.

Eftersommar, 1903, Hilma af Klint--one of her earliest paintings. 
First Abstract Watercolor, 1910,
Wassily Kandinsky
Of course, Kandinsky was an important, up and coming artist at the time. His work is well catalogued. He was also a man. Hilma af Klint wasn't. Born in 1864, along with a group of other female artists they called "The Five," she lived and worked in Stockholm all her life. And though Sweden has produced many outstanding artists over the years, it could also be considered something of a "backwater" insofar as European art was concerned during the early 20th-century. Kandinsky became famous, Klint became, well...weird. Klint's movement into abstract painting came primarily not from an exploration of art, but a devotion to something called "Theosophy," a movement which developed around 1875. I don't pretend to understand much about it, other than to say it dealt with mathematics and the occult. It was not a religion, striving instead for a deeper understanding of the meaning of human life. Her interest in Theosophy came following the death of her sister in 1880. Her lifelong devotion to numbers came from her father, a Swedish naval commander.

Hilma af Klint's work journal, July, 2, 1919.
Altarbild, (date uncertain), Hilma af Klint.
Working along side her four friends, Hilma af Klint ("af" in Swedish means of) experimented as early as 1896 in developing what later came to be called by the Surrealist, "automatic drawing." The hand and drawing tool are allowed to move randomly across the page driven only by the subconscious, largely eliminating rational though from the work--kind of a Ouija Board with a pencil. If that sounds a little silly, keep in mind Theosophy was only a small part of a much larger, turn-of-the century search for new, Modernist forms in artistic, spiritual, political and scientific systems. Klint's search led her to a new visual language allowing her to conceptualize what could previously not even be discussed. Her many dissected circles presumably allowed her to probe the mysteries of the human psyche, but more importantly, gave form to her more practical and expressive studies of color relationships that were the all important seeds for Abstract Expressionism some fifty years later.

Evolutionen, 1908, Hilma af Klint
Klint clothes.
Would you wear this?
Hilma af Klint continued to paint until around 1941. She died in 1944 at the age of eighty. In her will she asked that her paintings, numbering more than a thousand, not be displayed until twenty years after her death. In 1970, they were presented as a gift to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The museum turned them down. As a result, it wasn't until the 1980s that Klint's paintings were publicly displayed through the efforts of art historian, Åke Fant, who recognized their importance and the seminal influence it had on the New York School and, indeed, the history of art. Think about that the next time you choose a shirt or blouse bearing abstract art.
Based upon this by Klint?

Stockholm's Moderna Museet only recently got around to exhibiting Klint's work, including a 1907 painting
featuring circular lines and rectangular shapes filled with various colors on a rose background. It's titled,
The Ten Largest, No. 10. Sounds pretty abstract to me.

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