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Hilma af Klint’s Path to Abstraction

Liis Pählapuu (2/2015)

Liis Pählapuu interviews Iris Müller-Westermann, the curator of Hilma af Klint’s (1862–1944) retrospective "Hilma af Klint. A Pioneer of Abstraction".


13. III–7. VI 2015
Kumu Art Museum, Great Hall
Curator: Iris Müller-Westermann (Moderna Museet, Stockholm).


How did being a woman artist affect her development? Can we say, that the conditions that inspired her to work in seclusion also brought her to a unique creative position?

That she was a woman, in many ways was important, and we can't exclude it. Though, I would say, there were many male artists who made similar efforts, so it was not something only women did, absolutely not. There are many examples of male artists who opened up the limits or borders of their consciousness. But I think as a woman you need to be even more focused – I often think about when Hilma af Klint was a young woman and she decided to become an artist out of curiosity for a better, deeper understanding of the world surrounding her. I think we are all triggered by questions about life – in different ways. I think her way was a very visual way to get this bigger understanding.

At the time when she was studying in Sweden, it had been possible for women to study at the art academy since 1864. For comparison, I think it was 1919 before they were allowed to study together with men in Germany. Of course she was fortunate enough to live in the Sweden of that time. But even in Sweden the view of art made by women was that it was a simple pass-time for them. She should marry, have children and take care of her family – and that's it. In the world where Hilma af Klint started to become an artist, there was not much support for women artists that they should really be artists on the same level as men. But she chose this path.

I don't know if we can make this leap of logic and say that because she was a woman she had to work in seclusion. I think her path took her away from the visual reality – there was obviously a need to transcend the boundaries of that time – the kind of rationalism and very narrow way of explaining our existence and the cosmos and everything surrounding us. What we can see from her work is that there was ten years of training before she started to do these abstract works and make the "Paintings for the Temple" (1906–1915): 193 works. This was a time of research. There was no map for how to research in this area; there were no guidelines. It was a kind of experiment driven by curiosity but also a kind of trust. They (Members of the spiritual group The Five (De Fem). – Ed.) trusted what was coming to them. Of course they also doubted – was this only fantasy or was something really coming through.

I think with today's knowledge we can say that many people have embarked on a path of meditation and we know we can change our brainwaves. I think they were experimenting with that, and they had heard from people that it can be dangerous to be in this other “frequency” too long, because sometimes people didn't manage to come back. But of course they were curious about spiritualism. Hilma af Klint attended several different meetings. I think for her it was not only to talk to her dead grandmother or sister – not in that narrow sense. I think there was much more research involved to understand the bigger questions. During these ten years of research she understood that most people find it very weird, and say: this is only nonsense. If you are doing this, maybe you don't want to spend all your energy defending what you are doing, and have all those discussions with people that are somewhere else in their development.

For her it was very important to say: I do this, and I take all these notes (we know now there are more than 22,000 pages). They were really trying to go into something deeply. They didn't want to change people who were not there. Hilma af Klint wanted to assist and support people who felt it was something for them. Perhaps for this reason she didn't burn her work. But she didn't actively go out and say: I'm the missionary and now you all need to learn and understand. She was wise enough to understand that this is not how you bring knowledge to people. People have to be at a certain point and then they can put their own questions and then things come to them. I think the seclusion was a mechanism to secure her energy in a way.

When Rudolf Steiner saw the works in 1908, she was half way through the "Paintings for the Temple", he said people wouldn't understand it in the next 50 years. She understood that it would take time for mainstream society to get what she was doing. Also her "spirit guides" or the higher consciousness she got access to, they also said, it would be good if you don't make access so easy. It is not the time. We make these paintings together but don't show them. Since she was a woman and doing this – people who wouldn't understand would laugh and say: you are crazy. This is the kind of very strong energy which is not stimulating you but only takes energy away.

Is there some reason why the group The Five (De Fem) consisted only of women?

I don't think so. There were also male spiritualist mediums, not only women. But if we generalise, then men were more rooted in their brain and women, they could connect with their heart more easily than men, I would say. The men had demands made of them, that they should be the leaders and it would have been more difficult for a traditional male to open up to this. But I think the group would have accepted men as well. It just happened to be that these were women from the academy.

For example, Anna Cassel, a friend of Hilma's already from the academy. I think it was difficult in that time for women to contact men and really be friends, and not lovers. But I don't think the group was a kind of feminist statement. I don't think Hilma af Klint was operating on that level. It was tough enough to become an artist and to say: I am not a woman to marry if somebody who wants to have me. Hilma af Klint understood that if she married and had a family in the traditional sense, it would not support her in being this researching artist and spirit she wanted to be. And many generations later, how difficult it was for Louise Bourgeois to be an artist and mother and wife all at the same time. And it is still very difficult.

What fascinates me about Hilma af Klint, and you don't find this anywhere in her writings, was that she was a victim of society. She was just doing her work as much as possible in the time she was living. And she was willing to set priorities. Her priorities were not to have a big cosy home or luxury around her, but to do this research to come to a bigger understanding. To work at it and give all her energy for it. She was a vegetarian; she did not want to harm animals. She understood that there is a connection much deeper than most people want to admit. She was living a very simple life and had a focus on her work. I think she did really what she loved and wanted to do and dreamt about doing.

But of course, there were women around. And in Germany, International Women's Day was introduced in 1910. And of course Helena Blavatsky, who was travelling, doing research, doing really what she wanted, wrote the book "The Secret Doctrine" (1888). Of course, women who were also actively following their interests were stimulating her. There were all those different people in the field. John Todd, for example, who said, it is like racism how women are treated, and his book "Woman's Rights" came out in 1867.

So maybe Blavatsky's standpoint about women's creativity, which was also part of theosophical movement, supported the confidence of Hilma af Klint?

Yes, absolutely. And we know that Hilma af Klint had a copy of "The Secret Doctrine". And she was interested in Blavatsky's successor, Annie Besant, who visited Stockholm several times. Hilma af Klint visited her talks. I think it inspired her.

But what about the femininity in her work? How did it relate to the general understanding of femininity in her society? Or did she take the feminine aspect as one part of the spiritual search for the "whole"?

Yes, maybe the information that she received from her contacts with higher consciousness also showed her that if we could understand on a higher level what we are all doing here, that we are not separated, we are all one, we are interconnected. We have different aspects – the male and the female aspect is in each male and female, only in different proportions. None of these is better or worse; they have to be in balance. The focus until that time and until now was on intellect as the human instrument for understanding the world. And at that time it was heavily criticized by people like Hilma af Klint. The two aspects, the brain and the heart should always be in balance. There are a lot of thinkers and philosophers today, who focus on that. It was important for Hilma af Klint to see the whole, and how the world outside the human being functions.

There is a polarity in our dimension, the third dimension. It is only our experience in this frequency, but if we understood that there is also a connection to a higher perspective, then we would see that it is functioning perfectly together. An interesting thing in her work is also how the Eastern religions have seen the world. In our world, which has been dominated by Christianity, the world-view was rationalized. With the translations of Eastern texts, suddenly new influences came in and Christianity was a subject people were rethinking. Theosophy was inspiring in that sense. And Hilma af Klint lived in that time, when this was all becoming activated.

What is the most important aspect for you about Hilma af Klint as an artist?

For me it is important that there was woman and she felt that her way of understanding the world and doing research was a kind of research in images. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, but he was as much a researcher in his writings and through his imagery. Hilma af Klint was also this kind of talent where the visual was very important, but combined with a scientific mind. She was interested in chemistry, in the natural sciences. She was interested in systemizing to get a broader understanding. She started to investigate through art, but I would say, art is not enough. She used her skills as an artist to widen her perspective. What she gave back to the world – this was again images.

The images are very geometric – there is so much information in geometry. She was using the images, which were extending the limits of art – this is very important. She started out interested in becoming an artist, she continued as an artist but she widened what art could provide us. Not only images about the world, but also that images and art could be a tool for a deeper understanding or wider understanding of who we are. I think the most important thing is that she was aiming for this. This is so incredibly big – that somebody, who was not satisfied with looking at what can be seen, wants to explore what you cannot see and put it into a system. And using ways that nobody has used before. Not many people dare to go beyond what their society accepts. She was also overcoming her own doubts, and continued.


hilma af klint

"Hilma af Klint.
A Pioneer of Abstraction"
Exhibition view at Kumu
Art Museum,
photo by Stanislav Stepashko
Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma
af Klints Verk



There are some turning points in her creative work. Are there any reasons from outside or was this the result of her own development as an artist?

I think you need to train to become a marathon runner. We are all expanding. It is training and in the process of training you also increase your self-confidence. She learned to trust more and understood where trust was right and where trust was not right. Intention was very important to her. She was giving herself a direction that she was going to use her time for. I think without this intention it wouldn't have happened at all.

Was she satisfied with her work as she grew older?

I hope she was. But I think she was also this kind of mind that thought: do I have enough time? Did I really finish up with what was important, maybe there is more to research? In the 1930s she continued to write notes and had the information downloaded. Her whole life was like this. She filled notebook after notebook.

I think her greatest pain was that she didn't know what to do with the "Paintings for the Temple", which was a commission from a higher consciousness – a message to the world. She wanted to understand what the message was exactly. And then there was the question of where to keep these works. There was nobody to come and take her works. There was this insecurity. I think she thought that she had done as well as she was capable of doing and then she had to hand it over. I think handing it all over is also a process of trust, it's not in your power any more.

For me it is an attractive idea that some contemporary artist finds many aspects of Hilma af Klint's work interesting and contemporary. What does she have to say to people today?

This is a very complex question. Artists can go to the exhibition and they don't need to know so much about all this background. They only look at the images. And sometimes they have the capacity to test the energy of the work. Maybe they cannot explain it but they say, there is something that stimulates me here. There's something in it, which I like. The artists of our time, they are also each and every one in a different phase of their development.

We live in a world, where we are destroying our environment. We are polluting the Earth, the ocean. We have Fukushima. Of course the governments don't want to tell us, but on the west coast of the US there are such high levels of radiation that the fish have cancer. We are in such a desperate state on our Earth here. Everything is changing to a point where we don't know if the human race will be able to live in balance with Mother Nature. And without it, we will not survive. It is a very dark picture. And of course, young people are interested in how we can come to a wider understanding. What is it that we cannot see? How could we integrate knowledge of a different kind? This is not through the brain, through the mind, but the messages of the heart.

There is such interesting research being done now – that the heart is not only an organ, but has intelligence. Artists are maybe one of those categories of human beings who dare to look beyond what everybody else thinks. Hilma af Klint's art challenges us in so many ways. If we look at the development of modernism we can see, ok, there is this way towards abstraction, and she is part of this in a way. But what does it mean? She was not in contact with the circles of Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky. She had her own path toward abstraction.

In this way we can see that there is even much more information in that, which is beyond that which is traditionally seen as art. This research that she has done was much much bigger and touches upon so many areas. The way we are thinking about who we are today, in 2015, is for many people very limited. There is so much going on that the governments don't share with the public. Her work touches these questions. Many people would say: how is it possible that we can have contact with entities that have no bodies, it's only stupid, it cannot be like this. If you believe that we came into existence only by accident and after death everything is over – then, of course, you can't think of being in contact with anything, you understand yourself merely as a material being. But if you understand that everything is energy and there are different frequencies – then it may not be so strange. And if you started to listen to your intuition and train your sensitivity, in a way that we are not taught in school, then who are we – it extends so much. And there is so much research done.

I believe that Hilma af Klint was in contact with something that was not her own fantasy. If you look into what Einstein says or other famous scientists – they say they got their information from the source, from something that was not them. I think for Hilma it was the same. And we are still trying to decode what these works are about – beyond the fact that they are incredibly fascinating images and people like to spend time in front of them.

So Hilma recognized that it is only a question of time before scientific proof can be provided for the existence of invisible realities, bio-energetic fields, and so on?

Yes. I find it very important that she had that analytical mind. She was not a totally emotionally eccentric woman. All the descriptions about her say that she was very down to earth and structured.

If you look, now there are many amazing young scientists doing astronomical research about secret geometry and holy geometry. People like Patrick Flanagan. What he is doing is absolutely mind-blowing, amazing. All these people say: things come through me, I only do it. And of course, if you look at the perspective of the art world – this view is too narrow for Hilma af Klint. For me it is more about this research and the art comes in as a part of it. I would widen this much more. This is so much bigger than what all those small art historians want to have.

If you think about the art world – people like Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky – they were all departing from depicting the visible world. They were all interested in spirituality, but I think they were not so scientific as Hilma af Klint. She also came to this abstraction, but then she also went beyond. She really followed this for the rest of her life – the bigger perspective. But of course she is not the only one.

So we can be happy that Hilma af Klint had the skills to make her experience visual at such a high level?

We need to understand that we send out frequencies depending on our mood. And images also have frequencies. If you look at the works – go through the exhibition and don't think so much, but only feel. You don't need to understand – only feel the colours, the forms and what it does, how you react to that. I think these images by Hilma af Klint have very high frequencies. This is also why people feel attracted. It goes beyond our brain and what we understand.

There are so many people who are depressed by this world – we are constantly bombarded by television and art and everywhere with only the most superficial things. Where is the space for something else if we don't want to be part of that? I think that is exactly where Hilma af Klint comes in – these works that are not for sale have that kind of purity that gives peace or a good mood.

I also have a feeling that Hilma af Klint's art gives so much space – space for your own thoughts. And that's why people are happy when they leave the exhibition.

I think this is a very important thing. Because we live in a world where we are bombarded with information, we do not actually digest it. We hardly feel who we are. But if we are in front of a Hilma af Klint painting or in the natural world we suddenly feel we have space to think and breath in something, and maybe come in contact with ourselves – which is very difficult in our modern world.

I also remember from the exhibition in Stockholm that people were happy and surprised that the images can have energy. They had never thought about it. For me it was important, through the exhibition to have a space that was open and not defined so that people could have their own experiences. I didn't want to scare people away. I feel more and more that it is important to give people back their power to relate to images. Art is not about getting the message and then they know. It is really about daring to be confronted by something which is bigger than what we can put into words.


Liis Pählapuu is an art historian and works at Kumu Art Museum as a curator.

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