Abstract painting

Did Hilma af Klint invent abstract painting?

The Russian Wassily Kandinsky and a few others were the first to show such works in public in late 1911 and 1912, according to Leah Dickerman, who curated “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Biographical Dictionary website credits Kandinsky with “painting early modern abstract works”.

But some scholars say an obscure Swedish artist, excluded from the MoMA exhibition and catalog, should be credited. The artist, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), is the subject of a solo exhibition at the famous Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

GB, FIGURE: Viewers meditate on the abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet

‘Art history needs to be rewritten,’ says art historian Julia Voss in light of af Klint’s exhibition, which features nearly 200 works, including abstract paintings from before 1910 For Ms. Voss, af Klint’s early work undermines claims that Kandinsky, Francis Picabia, Kazimir Malevich and others were the pioneers.

Not so, says Ms. Dickerman, curator of the MoMA exhibit. Af Klint “painted in isolation and did not exhibit his works, nor participate in the public discussions of that time”. In the exhibition, Ms. Dickerman attempts to show that there was not just one pioneering abstract work, but several evolved around the same time and were first shown at the end of 1911. Mrs. Dickerman defends her decision to exclude af Klint: “I find what she did absolutely fascinating, but I’m not even sure she saw her paintings as works of art.”

A huge af Klint canvas from 1907, hanging in the Moderna Museet, features circular lines and rectangular shapes filled with different colors on a pink background. “The Ten Largest, No. 10”, as the work calls it, is clearly abstract. The show ends May 26.

The daughter of a sea captain, af Klint, became interested in both painting and mysticism at an early age, participating in seances before the age of 20. She painted in a naturalistic style in the late 19th century and befriended a group who made contact during the seances with “great masters”, who she says dictated some of her paintings.

Af Klint ordered his abstract paintings to be hidden from the public until 20 years after his death; she believed that only then would viewers understand them. She permitted exhibitions of her naturalistic works – for example, in a 1911 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm.

She remains more or less unknown to the international art world, whereas last fall a Kandinsky fetched $23 million, a record for the artist, at Christie’s in New York.

Iris Müller-Westermann, curator of af Klint’s solo exhibition at the Moderna Museet, thinks af Klint deserves mention alongside Kandinsky and his companions. “The male-dominated world of that era denied that women could be creative, but she created something new,” she says.

But Felix Krämer, who heads the modern art department at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, says, “It’s not productive to rewrite art history every week. Art history is not a competition” where it only counts to be first. He points out that there may have been painters working abstractly before af Klint. Ms. Müller-Westermann notes that, unlike Kandinsky, af Klint neither taught abstraction nor exhibited his abstract works and as such was unable to influence his peers.

“When is a painting abstract?” asks Mr Krämer. “Each portrait with a golden background is, in a way, abstract.”

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