Painting for the future

Taller than a basketball player and as colorful as a swirled scoop of sherbet, Klint’s original paintings now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will overwhelm you.

HILMA AF KLINT ‘The Ten Largest: Childhood’ / ‘The Ten Largest: Youth’ / ‘The Ten Largest: Adulthood’ (1907) (photo credit: Courtesy)
HILMA AF KLINT ‘The Ten Largest: Childhood’ / ‘The Ten Largest: Youth’ / ‘The Ten Largest: Adulthood’ (1907)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It may have taken more than 100 years but the international art community is finally recognizing the work of Hilma af Klint, who had she not been a woman, might have been a household name like other internationally-known abstract artists of her time such as Piet Mondrian or Wassily Kandinsky. The difference between Klint and Kandinsky is that Klint’s paintings, exhibited from October to April at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, shattered Kandinsky’s 2009 record, selling 30,000 catalogues, bringing 600,000 visitors and increasing museum membership by 34%. The museum recognizes the exhibit as the most visited in its 60-year history.
Taller than a basketball player and as colorful as a swirled scoop of sherbet, Klint’s original paintings now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will overwhelm you as you step into the white room that boasts her work. The pieces in the show, A New Age: The Spiritual in Art, are larger than life and stop spectators in their tracks. The bench in front of the 1907 collection called Ten Largest was forever filled with museum-goers who sat for a moment and allowed themselves to become immersed in the four enormous paintings. Each one represents a stage in life, with Childhood on the right and Old Age, the fourth tempera piece on the left. These works were created in two parts, pasting two pages together at the seam onto canvas. Not traditionally used in the modern day, tempera is a method of blending pigments with water or egg yolk.
Klint’s contemporary style is so unusual that visitors leaving the exhibit often expressed their reaction to the painting with mere gesticulations. Arms flailed and some pointed to their hearts, using words out loud only to say they could feel the works within their bodies. The artist was raised in Stockholm, Sweden, where she was born in 1862. She believed herself to be a true medium, having the ability to bridge the spiritual world to the ground on which she walked. Klint wrote that the spirits guided her hand when she painted as if in a trance, and that when she looked at the piece, she was seeing it for the first time. Her extensive religious research is revealed in more than 1,200 paintings she left behind. Some have small angels inside of circles, while some have Jewish stars and other sacred symbols embedded within. Klint was not your typical Christian.
The Tel Aviv Art Museum brought curator Ruth Direktor onto the staff five years ago, inventing a new position: contemporary international art curator.” Direktor told The Jerusalem Post she began working on bringing Klint’s pieces to the museum shortly after joining the team. Direktor became familiar with Klint in 2005 when she was researching outsider artists – people who execute their art in a vacuum, away from central art hubs and often without support from the art community. Direktor reached out to the Hilma af Klint Foundation, which loaned the works to The Tel Aviv Museum. It was here that she Direktor began planting the seeds for the exhibition. Today, because of the success at the Guggenheim, Klint has become a star.
“It is an achievement that they [the paintings] are being shown here in this specific moment because usually we tend to say, ‘Oh the hot things arrive in Israel in delay.’ But this time it’s not in delay. The moment is right for this artist to be shown,” Direktor said. 
But the moment was not always right. Klint began her career painting portraits and landscapes for money, and her work was virtually unknown throughout the duration of her life.
KLINT PARTICIPATED in séances and believed in concepts rarely heard of during her time. This kept her from being taken seriously by members of the European art community. Klint never married and this also marred her status.
In her will, the artist instructed her family not to show any of the pieces, but rather hold on to the works (which included 125 notebooks filled with matching writings about the paintings) for 20 years. Klint annotated a note forbidding them from selling the paintings.
She was right to do so.
Though Klint’s nephew Eric af Klint tried offering her estate and works to a variety of museums after the 20-year embargo, there were no takers. Following this failure, he started the Hilma af Klint Foundation where he was able to preserve the works in a more public way. But it still wasn’t until 1984 that Swedish art scholar Ake Fant showcased some of her pieces at a conference in Helsinki. This was just the beginning. It turned out that Klint was right to think she had been born before her time.
Direktor suggests that in a moment, or new age, where people are seeking something that technology cannot give them, they are turning to the spiritual and seeking sources of connection. This is the moment Klint had been waiting for.
“It’s not by chance that people are doing yoga and going to Brazil to do the rituals of shamans, and doing ayahuasca rituals and trance parties in nature and trying to connect to the cosmos. This is what Hilma was doing in her time in her own way without context,” Direktor explained.
The exhibit touts 14 of Klint’s works from the early part of her career, including pieces from each of five collections: The Ten Largest (1907), Evolution (1908), The Dove (1915), Altarpiece (1915) and The Swan (1915). Klint worked furiously. From 1906 through 1908 she came up with 111 paintings.
It seemed that Klint painted in chapters, each one having a wildly different theme. Some are whimsical and pastel-colored while others are geometric and look like targets. A connecting factor is that the artist favored red and yellow hues. Direktor explained that she chose pieces from the earlier part of Klint’s career because they best represent her artistic language, vocabulary, style and ideas. Klint painted until just a few years before her death in 1944, when she was hit by a streetcar.
“The case of Hilma af Klint can be an inspiration for people to do their own things, to keep on doing what they believe in, regardless of whether they receive or do not receive recognition,” Direktor said. “Of course recognition is very important to artists. Not everyone can continue without recognition. So Hilma’s case can serve as an optimistic example to the dynamics of things. Things change, opinions and prejudice change, taste changes. People change.”
In February 2018, the Klint Foundation (which is still family-run) signed a long-term agreement with the Moderna Museet museum in Stockholm to create the Hilma af Klint Room, a space that will continually show a dozen pieces of her art.
On September 10, the museum will host a conference in English called “Hilma af Klint: Artist and Mystic,” led by Julia Voss, a German art scholar who wrote the first monograph on the talented painter. So far this specialty literature has only been written in German, but is due to be translated into English. Voss will be joined by Ulf Wagner, a board member of the Hilma af Klint Foundation who, along with Louise del Frag, a Swedish art expert who focuses on the spiritual tendencies in art, will speak on the spiritual practices of Klint. The exhibit runs until February 1.