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Painting by Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 17, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

In-depth Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was a pioneer of abstraction. As early as 1906 she had developed a rich, symbolic imagery that preceded the more broadly recognized emergence of abstract art. Since her retrospective at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2013, interest in the Swedish artist has increased all over the world. The exhibition “Hilma af Klint – Artist, Researcher, Medium” further expands our understanding of this groundbreaking artist and researcher.

Hilma af Klint studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm from 1882 to 1887 where she focused on naturalistic landscape and portrait paintings. Like many of her contemporaries, af Klint also had a keen interest in invisible dimensions that exist beyond the visible world. When painting she was convinced that she was in contact with higher consciousness, which conveyed messages through her. Her major series, “The Paintings for the Temple”, became the crux of this artistic inquiry. 

The exhibition centres on three aspects of Hilma af Klint’s life and interests – as artist, researcher and medium – that are key to revealing and understanding her art. With few exceptions, af Klint never exhibited her abstract works during her lifetime. Yet she left us with a radical body of work – unprecedented in its use of color, scale and composition – which she hoped future audiences might be better able to sense and decode. 

Hilma af Klint made paintings for the future, and that future is now.

Artist and medium

Like many of her contemporaries at the turn of the twentieth century, Hilma af Klint sought to expand her consciousness in order to gain a wider perspective on what we perceive as reality. Consciousness remains one of the deepest mysteries in our time, a subject eagerly explored in neurology, psychology, quantum physics and epigenetics. As part of her spiritual practice, af Klint meditated, adhered to a vegetarian diet, and studied Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. These two esoteric schools thought knowledge of a deeper spiritual reality could be achieved through focused attention on intuition, meditation, and other means of transcending normal human consciousness. Over a period of ten years, af Klint met weekly with four other women, known as De fem (“The Five”). They trained their capability to access or “channel” higher levels of consciousness through contact with spiritual guides known as De Höga (“The Masters”). Af Klint received a specific assignment, which she accepted, known as “The Paintings for the Temple”. She worked throughout her life to understand the deeper meaning embedded in these works.

The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke

The artist described how she painted the series as a medium, where shapes, colors and compositions came to her. Although af Klint perceived these works as flowing uninhibitedly through her guided hand, she very much applied herself and all her skills in the process: she worked methodically and sequentially in series, divided into thematically and formally focused groups exploring different aspects of cosmic and human evolution.

The paintings for the temple

Between 1906 and 1915, Hilma af Klint created “The Paintings for the Temple”. It comprises 193 paintings and drawings, divided into series and groups. Works produced between 1906 and 1908 are on view in the Turbine Hall; works from the second part of the series from 1912 to 1915 are on view in the upstairs galleries at Moderna Museet Malmö.

The overall theme of the series is to convey different aspects of human evolution, instigated by polarity. “The Paintings for the Temple” also thematizes different stages of development that every human being goes through during life on earth. The temple in the title refers not only to a physical building, which af Klint imagined would house the work, but also to the body as a temple for the soul.

Turbine hall

Eros and The Seven-pointed Star

Hilma af Klint, The Eros Series, No. 8, 1907 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

The exhibition opens with the joyful series dedicated to Eros, the Greek god of love, associated with fertility and desire. Full of life, these pink-hued works take up the theme of polarity between male and female as the driving force of evolution. These abstract works completely differ from the classic representation of Eros.

In the series “The Seven-Pointed Star” (1908), Hilma af Klint experimented with a greater economy of line, depicting spiraling energy expanding outwards and forming new centres. As is the case with most of af Klint’s work, there is no singular meaning. Seven is a sacred number in many cultures, associated with divine order, and also the eternal harmony of the universe. In Theosophy the star cluster, known as the Seven Stars or the Pleiades, transmits spiritual energy that eventually reaches the human plane.

Watch our art educator Ellen Arvidsson present one of the works from the series Eros:

The Ten Largest

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, 1907 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Like many of the other series within “The Paintings for the Temple”, “The Ten Largest” seems somehow unfettered by limitations of place and time. Across ten canvases, swirling shapes in soft pastel colors rhythmically interact with cursive letters, forming a kind of visual poem. Petals, ovaries, flowers and spirals pulsate in constant sparks of creation. Hilma af Klint attributed this series to the exploration of the human life cycle, from childhood and youth to adulthood and old age. The artist created the ten works between November and December of 1907 on large sheets of paper later glued onto canvas. Given the unusual scale of the works, it is likely that af Klint painted each canvas, while it was lying flat on her studio floor.

Watch our art educator Mimmi Sjöö present one of the works from the series The Ten Largest:

Primordial Chaos

Hilma af Klint, Primordial Chaos, No. 15, 1906 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

“Primordial Chaos” (1906–07) is devoted to the creation of the physical world. From the original unity a polarized world arose out of spirit, shown here as feminine (blue and the eyelet) and masculine (yellow and the hook), and also as W (material) and U (spirit). These works are full of spirals of energy and sparks of creation, of symbols of fertility and rebirth (sperm, snakes, crosses).

Evolution

Hilma af Klint, The Evolution, No. 7, 1908 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

The theme of the evolution of consciousness runs throughout “The Paintings for the Temple”. In the series “Evolution” (1908), the process of development is shown through the interplay between polarities: male and female, light and darkness, good and evil. Compositionally these works strive to find a balance, in horizontal and vertical mirroring. Hilma af Klint’s exploration seems aligned with the theosophist notion of evolution as a spiritual process, extending beyond the biological perspective on human development that, with the publishing of Darwin’s “The Evolution of the Species” fifty years earlier, had gained widespread notoriety. This series ends the first part of “The Paintings for the Temple”, as the commission was paused between 1908 and 1912. 

Watch our curator of learning Susanne Lindblad present one of the works from the series Evolution:

Upstairs Galleries

The Swan and The Dove

Hilma af Klint, The Dove, No. 1, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

When Hilma af Klint resumed her work on “The Paintings for the Temple” in 1912, her abstraction became more geometric in nature, and Christian symbols became increasingly pronounced. When working, the artist was still in contact with higher planes of consciousness but was encouraged to interpret spiritual messages more freely. 

Viewed in sequence, “The Swan” (1914–15) has a distinct visual rhythm. Often a horizontal line breaks the canvases into two sections where opposite forces meet – light and dark, male and female, life and death. These poles unfold as a black and white swan. Eventually, figuration gives way to abstraction in a fuller spectrum of color. In the final work in the series, the swan pair returns, unified at the centre, intertwined yet distinct and balanced as male and female poles.

Watch our art educator Sannie Johansen present one of the works from the series The Swan:

“The Dove” (1915) depicts the creation process. It draws upon Christian symbols such as the dove for spirit, peace and unity. It also thematizes the battle between the forces of light and darkness through the allegory of Saint George and the Dragon.

Watch our curator of learning Susanne Lindblad present one of the works from the series The Dove:

Altarpieces

Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece, No. 1, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Hilma af Klint understood the three powerful “Altarpieces” (1915) as the essence of “The Paintings for the Temple”. These works capture the two directions of spiritual evolution: the ascension from the material world back to unity (the triangle pointing to the golden circle) and the descension from divine unity into the diversity of the material world (the inverted triangle). In the third and final painting, a small six-pointed star within the large golden circle is an esoteric symbol for the universe.

Watch our curator of learning Susanne Lindblad present Altarpieces:

New Gallery

Researcher

Hilma af Klint, Group 2, No title, No. 14a–No. 21, 1919 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

New Gallery is dedicated to Hilma af Klint the researcher, specifically her effort to process and understand the deeper meaning of her spiritually guided work in paintings, drawings and writing, from the 1890s to 1930s. Af Klint had an inquisitive mind. She came from a family of naval officers and nautical cartographers and approached her artistic practice with structured rigor. While she had the courage to open herself to let something larger flow through her while painting, she approached the resulting body of work in a systematic and analytic way. 

Throughout her life, af Klint took copious notes, regarding her experiences and interpretations of the messages she apprehended through her spiritual practice. After completing “The Paintings for the Temple”, the artist tried to methodically gain an overview of her work and its possible meanings. In the spirit of a scientific researcher, she edited and reorganized her early notes, created a dictionary of the symbols that appeared in her works and catalogued all the works in “The Paintings for the Temple” in a portable portfolio. Remarkably, af Klint understood all of her works of art as a unified project – a notion radical for the time, but also a testament to the fact that she believed her work to have a higher purpose.

De Fem – Drawings

Between 1896 and 1906, Hilma af Klint and four other women formed the group “De Fem” (“The Five”). They met weekly to meditate, read spiritual literature and accesses higher consciousness through communication with spirit guides, “De Höga” (“The Masters”). These meetings were meticulously recorded in writing and led even to automatic drawings. The women took turns to wield the pen during their sessions, but individual authorship was not important, and rarely indicated on the drawings. The pastel works on view exhibit elements that recur in af Klint’s later work – for example, spiral, stylized floral motifs and other geometrical forms.

The Parsifal Series

Hilma af Klint, Parsifal, No. 69, 1916 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

The title of this series from 1916 may refer to the legend of King Arthur, in which Parsifal, one of the Knights of the Round Table, takes part in the quest for the Holy Grail. On 144 sheets, of which a selection is on view, Hilma af Klint depicts the search for knowledge as a journey through various levels of consciousness. In the first image this is marked by a winding path through the darkness towards the white light at the centre of the spiral. In other works, a young boy, shown in different ages, attempts to balance between matter and spirit, up and down. This exploration is continued in radically conceptual yellow monochromes, inscribed with words marking direction: “Nedåt” (downward), “Framåt” (forward), “Bakåt” (backward), “Utåt” (outward) and “Inåt” (inward). Parsifal’s journey also mirrors the artist’s own process in the inward journey she has undertaken by accepting, completing and trying to understand “The Paintings for the Temple”.

Watch our art educator Matti Sumari present one of the works from the series Parsifal:

The Atom Series

Hilma af Klint, The Atom, No. 5, 1917 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

In “The Atom Series” from 1917, Hilma af Klint explored another aspect of life that could not be perceived by the human eye: the world of atoms and their energy, a science popular at the time. Apart from the first two drawings, all feature two renderings of an atom: a large one in the lower right, which represents the energy of a physical atom, and a smaller one in the upper left, which represents the atom on an etheric or metaphysical plane. In handwritten notes, af Klint describes the atom as embodying human properties. For the theosophists, whom the artist studied, the discovery of atoms, sub-particle waves etc., were seen as proof of an invisible reality beyond the perceptible world. For af Klint, atoms and thus humans were spiritual entities connected to the centre of the universe.

The Blue Books

In 1917, Hilma af Klint had a studio built on Munsö, where for the first time she had the possibility of seeing all “The Paintings for the Temple’s” different series in their entirety. Perhaps this is what precipitated the creation of the ten blue-bound books, a portable overview of “The Paintings for the Temple”. On each spread, a work is represented by a black-and-white photograph and a watercolor intended to give an accurate impression of the original. In some of the watercolors, af Klint adds close-ups and lets us examine the work as if through a microscope in order to further clarify what was not clear enough in the paintings. The works were organized in concordance with the order of the series. This tremendous effort demonstrates that af Klint wanted to reinvestigate and reflect on her life’s work in a systematic way and perhaps to share it more easily with others.

Botanical studies

Hilma af Klint, Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, Series  I, 1919 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk
Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Throughout her life, Hilma af Klint had a deep interest in nature and botany. Her early botanical studies up to the late watercolors, convey that she was not only a keen observer, but also possessed a rigorously analytic mind, which she could apply in her endeavour to perceive aspects of existence beyond the visible. 

Her botanical studies reveal a shifting focus from naturalistic renderings of plant-life as she observed it, to renderings intended to express the spiritual essence or presence beyond the visible body. In “The Violet, Blossoms with Guidelines, Series 1″ (1919) she combines naturalistic renderings of the flower with a diagram of its essence. In “Blumen, Moose, Flechten” [Flowers, Moss, Lichens] (1919–20), represented here as a facsimile, af Klint continues with her systematic investigation of the plant kingdom. She combines a diagram with the plant’s Latin name and the date of investigation, alongside properties such as joy, humility and devotion, which one can attempt to come in contact with through contemplation on the plant in question. By 1923, af Klint made yet another stylistic shift, influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical views on aesthetics and her visits to the The Goetheanum, the centre for the anthroposophical movement in Dornach, Switzerland. Here af Klint gave up painting geometric compositions and began instead portraying the spiritual dimension of nature in fluid watercolors. 

Geometric analysis in later series

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 3, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

In the series the “Tree of Knowledge” (1913–15), Hilma af Klint maps the different spiritual planes of existence in order to picture the complexity of existence and the connection between the earth and the divine. In later series like “Series IV” (1920) and “VII” (1920), af Klint seems to focus her research on symbols such as the cross, the circle and the triangle as well as the six-pointed star and processes these sacred symbols instigate. Many of these works are characterized by a geometric idiom and involve analysis on both the macrocosmic and microcosmic level. 

More about this exhibition