7.3.2014 - 6.7.2014


A Pioneer of Abstraction


The following is based on the wall texts in the exhibition Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction at Louisiana. More information in English can be found in the exhibition catalogue “Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction” published by Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

The Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was at the leading edge of the development of abstract art in the first decade of the twentieth century. She made her first abstract paintings as early as 1906, but she never exhibited the pioneering pictures. She wrote in her will that at least twenty years must pass after her death before the pictures could be shown in public. Only then would time be ripe, she thought.

The driving force behind Hilma af Klint’s work is the conviction that there is a spiritual dimension to existence. With painting as her tool she sought insight into a higher coherence behind the visible world. The pictures are structured in series and are characterized by their systematic approach to the exploration of the spiritual.

Hilma af Klint was inspired by a number of spiritually searching and experimental currents in her time, for example spiritualism, Theosophy and later Anthroposophy. She shared her interest for metaphysical matters with many other thinkers, authors, musicians and artists of the period, including the better known pioneers of abstract art – Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, František Kupka and Piet Mondrian.

The exhibition spans the whole of Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre. She trained at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in naturalistic landscape and portrait painting, but alongside her activities in these genres she experimented with contacting higher consciousnesses and planes of reality.

As a result of this she changed course artistically: at the age of 44 she began painting abstract and symbolic pictures. Pictures of universal connections and structures that she saw beyond the visible world. The central work is a large suite that she called The Paintings for the Temple. A large part of the suite is shown in the exhibition, and it consists of a number of different series created in the period 1906-15.

The increasingly geometrical formal language was softened in the late works from the 1920s, when Hilma af Klint again changed style and continued her explorations in watercolours of a more fluid character.

Pure abstraction is not an end in itself in Hilma af Klint’s work. The abstractions can rather be seen as visual representations of the invisible, universal forces which she believed connected the material and the spiritual world.

Early works

The exhibition shows examples of Hilma af Klint’s early work: a landscape painting and a number of botanical studies. She worked for a period as an illustrator for the Swedish Veterinary Institute, and these early pictures testify to her talent for accurate and sober registration of what she saw.

Alongside the activities as a naturalistic artist she took an interest in the invisible dimensions of reality. In 1896 Hilma af Klint began meeting weekly with four other women in the group The Five. They studied and held séances where the members of the group are said to have come into contact with ‘higher consciousnesses’. In automatic drawings and writing The Five recorded the messages and impressions they received during the séances. The drawings include several of the motifs that later appear in Hilma af Klint’s paintings, such as the spiral and stylized plant motifs as well as geometrical and mirrored shapes.


The Five took minutes of their meetings including messages and images received during the séances. A practice which Hilma af Klint carried on throughout her life and among other things she made a notebook with lists of letters and words in her work. The book is on display in the exhibition and makes clear how the same letters and words can carry different symbolic meanings. She left a total of about 25,000 pages of sketches and notes. Late in her life she went through the many notebooks, structured them and added lists of contents.

Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction. Video produced by Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Hilma af Klint’s symbols

Hilma af Klint uses many symbols that cannot be translated unambiguously. The individual symbols may have several meanings that change according to the context in which they appear. Some symbols can be recognized from Christian symbolism, others are taken from ancient, eastern or occult traditions. They carry their original meanings with them, but are also given new ones in Hilma af Klints complex use of them.

Some of the most common symbols:

The snail/the spiral represents development and evolution. If the spiral runs clockwise (from the center), it signifies the power of emotion, which is a feminine principle. If it runs counter-clockwise, it symbolizes thought and the masculine power.

Blue and yellow represent the feminine and the masculine respectively. The same is true of the lily and the rose.

W stands for matter, U stands for spirit.

The almond shape (the mandorla or vesica piscis) is a widespread symbol in many traditions, for example as a symbol of the development towards unity and completion.

The swan represents the metaphysical in many religions and mythologies and stands for consummation in the alchemical tradition.

The dove is an ancient symbol of love and in the Christian tradition it stands for peace and the Holy Spirit.

The paintings for the temple

The Paintings for the Temple is a large suite of works created between 1906 and 1915, totaling 193 pictures, of which a large part is shown in the exhibition. Hilma af Klint believed she had received the task from the ‘higher consciousnesses’ with whom she felt she was in contact with and for example describes working with the series The Large Figure Paintings (1907) as follows: “The pictures were painted directly through me, with no preliminary drawing and with great power. I had no idea of what the images were supposed to represent, and yet I worked quickly and with assurance, without changing a single brushstroke.”

The concept of the ‘Temple’ is to be understood metaphorically, as a platform for spiritual development. The artist’s wish to also build a literal circular or spiral-shaped temple for the paintings was never realized.

Selected series

The series Primordial Chaos (1906-07) begins the suite The Paintings for the Temple and depicts the origin of the physical world. Out of the original totality a polarized world arises, shown here in the colours blue and yellow, which symbolize the feminine and masculine, the fundamental duality that, according to Hilma af Klint, drives evolution forward.

The Ten Largest (1907) are symbolic depictions of the four ages of mankind: childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. The palette is dominated by pastel colours – a non-earthly palette for the ‘extraterrestrial’ depictions. The size of the works is striking, quite unique in Hilma af Klint’s time, and they are the largest pictures in the suite The Paintings for the Temple.

In the series, Evolution (1908), the theme is the evolution of mankind and the spirit, which is shown in various stages. Evolution is a quite central theme in Hilma af Klint’s work and thinking, and Darwin’s theory was on the whole an important inspiration for Theosophy, which she studied. Rudolf Steiner saw the pictures in 1908 and called No. 15 (top of this page) Hilma af Klint’s spiritual self-portrait.

Between 1908 and 1912 Hilma af Klint took a break from painting. The work was resumed in a more geometrical formal idiom than in the earlier series. In the series The Swan (1914-15) and the subsequent series The Dove (1915) her characteristic combination of figurative and non-figurative elements, and of symbols from a variety of traditions, can still be detected. One of the basic themes of Hilma af Klint is her idea of the fundamental opposition in the physical world between male and female; two poles that constantly strive for unity and a fusion into the original totality from which the split from.

The three Altarpieces (1915) sum up the suite The Paintings for the Temple. The Altarpieces can be seen as a summing-up of the artistic and spiritual development that Hilma af Klint had undergone in the course of the suite. She had developed a distinctive style of abstract and symbolic painting as an inextricable element in her spiritual research. Step by step, series by series, forward, upwards. The Altarpieces are about the links between the physical and the spiritual world. The pyramid shape symbolizes a stepwise development upward towards the highest spiritual insight in the perfect golden circle.

Hilma af Klint - Biography and context. Click image to open

A new chapter

The Parsifal series (1916) indicates a new chapter in Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre. The formats are now smaller, and she mainly works in watercolours and drawings. The work still falls in series, but they are no longer connected in a continuous process.

The figure of Parsifal (known in English as Percival) comes originally from medieval Arthurian legend and appears in several occult contexts as well as in Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name from 1882. Parsifal is one of the knights on the quest for the Holy Grail, a symbol of mystery and the ultimate insight that can be found after intense searching. Hilma af Klint worked throughout her life to analyse and understand the meaning of her works and the higher messages they could contain.

The series from 1916-22 contain a number of focused analyses at both the micro and the macro level: One series takes a closer look at the atoms in a combination, typical of Hilma af Klint, of scientific research and occult endeavour. Another series consists of diagrammatic representations of religions.

Nature in focus

Hilma af Klint’s interest in nature and botany is a recurrent theme – from the early landscape pictures and botanical studies up to the late works. The focus shifts from the nature one can see with the naked eye to analyses of the elements and interconnections of nature at a higher level. In drawings of violets, wheat grains and oat grains she combines the physical and the astral planes: Accurate representations of flowers and grains are combined with diagrams of their higher essence.

In the late watercolours from 1922 and afterwards, the botanical depictions have taken quite a new form, and colour plays the main role. These works were directly inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s aesthetics and ideas, and they take the form of intuitive sensory impressions rather than analyses of the phenomena.

All works © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Moderna Museet / Albin Dahlström.