Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction was the title of a major exhibition of the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre that was curated by Stockholm’s museum of modern art, Moderna Museet in 2013. When the exhibition’s highly successful tour of Europe ended at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in the Norwegian capital it had attracted more than a million visitors. It is a great honour for Strandverket, together with London’s Serpentine Gallery, to be able to show parts of the exhibition in the spring of 2016. We have chosen to let Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) meet one of the most respected artists of our own time, the Swedish painter Ann Edholm, born in 1953, in an exhibition that questions the very idea of what abstract painting actually is – and what is meant by figurative art.
Hilma af Klint is one of a small number of Swedish artists with an international reputation. She first attracted attention in art circles some 42 years after her death when an exhibition entitled The Spiritual in Art – Abstract Painting 1890-1985 was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986. Prior to this, abstract art was, for many decades, considered to have had four pioneers, all of them men: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and František Kupka. The exhibition led to a sensational breakthrough for Hilma af Klint who was totally unknown in art circles at the time. The mother of abstract painting had finally appeared!
Hilma af Klint was of a distinctly religious disposition and she considered that her art was a gift from higher powers. She entered into trancelike states which enabled her to receive messages from a number of spiritual leaders: The High Masters and their allies. Under the influence of these forces Hilma af Klint produced almost half of her thousand paintings. If one adds to that some 20 000 closely written pages of her diary, where she accounts in detail her conversations with the High Masters, and which also offer examples of her “automatic drawings” which were the basis of her paintings. While she was working under the inspiration of the High Masters she was advised not to show her work to outsiders. Her paintings were only to be viewed some twenty years after her death. In fact, only a very small number of people were aware of their existence.
Twenty-six years after Hilma af Klint’s death, in 1970, her entire oeuvre was offered to Moderna Museet in Stockholm as a donation. The museum politely refused the gift which would have been worth vast sums today. A few years later a foundation was created to care for her oeuvre, Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk.
Hilma af Klint started on her “occult paintings”, which have now become famous throughout the world, with her Primordial Chaos series of paintings, sometimes known as The initial 26 small paintings, at the age of 44 in November 1906. The series had been clearly commissioned by the High Masters who also determined the content, colours and design of the series of paintings. Three of the Primordial Chaos paintings are included in our exhibition.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) – the founder of anthroposophy – was shown Hilma af Klint’s early abstract paintings and concluded that no one would understand her art for at least fifty years. It is possible that his conclusion was correct for, in a manner of speaking, he predicted that, somewhere around 1960, artists would be working in a way where spiritual values would receive a great deal of room – as with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys whose art was positively received by a broader public.
In the encounter with Ann Edholm’s paintings we have chosen to account for Hilma af Klint’s work with a number of paintings from her most important series like the WU/Rose series (1907), The Swan (1914), The Dove (1915) and Series V (1920). Like Hilma af Klint, Ann Edholm usually works with long series of paintings and, just as with Hilma af Klint, there are obvious religious allusions in Ann Edholm’s work.
One example is the suite of art prints entitled 14 Conceptions – Tango d’Amour (1998) which is often referred to as her Golgotha Suite in which we are able to follow Christ’s passion on his way to the cross at Golgotha. This suite is included in the exhibition in its entirety. Another masterly painting, Maria (2008), also shows evident religious allusions. With Mickey Mouse, which actually consists of three black circles placed against a dazzlingly white ground, there is room for a play on popular culture with associations to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse – at least if one is a child! The painting is accompanied at the exhibition by two small, realistically painted Mickey Mouse collages: Mickey Mouse Meets the Light and Mickey Mouse’s Nightmare (2004).
In the consistency of her abstract painting Ann Edholm can be regarded as a female disciple of the concretist painter Olle Baertling (1911-1981), but with an expressive and “wounded” hand in some of her earlier paintings. With her unique oeuvre Ann Edholm already has a long and successful career. Among students she is known as a much-loved teacher. Ann Edholm was professor of painting at what is now the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm (1992-1998), and at the University of Gothenburg’s Valand Academy (1999-2002) and has been professor at Umeå University’s Academy of Fine Arts since 2006. Ann Edholm won a great deal of international attention for her magnificent tapestry curtain Dialogos for the ECOSOC chamber in the UN building in New York in 2012. The curtain was a gift from Sweden and was handed over in the presence of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Ann Edholm has summed up her painting in the following words:
– In my painting the beholder’s position is frontal, body to body, seen from in front. At a distance you see the image, but the closer you get the more the image is dissolved into colour, body and painting.
The dissolution of the image as a true perception of proximity.
An exhibition of this type is the work of many hands. My thoughts go first to Hilma af Klint whose oeuvre testifies to a remarkable desire to communicate her message to humanity by solitarily producing a thousand or so paintings knowing that no one would understand them until long after her own death.
I also feel a great respect for Ann Edholm who, in this exhibition, has undertaken the challenge of letting her own paintings encounter those of the mythical artistic oeuvre. An oeuvre that is more relevant today than it was a century ago.
I am also indebted to Ulf Wagner, a connoisseur of Hilma af Klint’s work, for his insightful essay in the catalogue and for his participation as a discussion partner regarding the content and design of the exhibition. We are also extremely grateful to Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk which has shown Strandverket a great confidence in loaning us these unique paintings. We are equally indebted to the various collectors who have generously loaned us key works from Ann Edholm’s oeuvre.
This meeting between Ann Edholm and Hilma af Klint should be seen as the model for future exhibitions in which Hilma af Klint meets our own times. Hopefully in her own museum in a not too distant future.
Strandverket Art Museum