Hilma Af Klint: The Secret Paintings

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is presented at the Art Gallery of NSW from 12 June to 19 September 2021

In 2019, Hilma af Klint’s work broke records at the Guggenheim Museum in New York as the most visited exhibition in the museum’s history with over 600,000 people viewing it in less than 6 months. So it is very exciting that in June 2021, her collection is being shown at the Art Gallery of NSW, its first exhibition in the Australiasian region. If millions of people are seeing her artwork around the world, what makes her paintings so ‘secret’?

Hilma af Klint was born in Stockholm in the early 1860s, and grew up visiting her family’s summer home on an island in Lake Mälaren, west of the city. From a young age, she found her passion in natural beauty and art and in 1887 graduated from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Soon after, she rejected her formal training and tuned into the Helena Blavatsky’s theosophy beliefs and spiritualism. During that time, the desire to reconcile long-standing religious teachings and scientific advancements through spiritual guidance was becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe. In her research, af Klint connected with 4 women, all artists on similar mystical journeys and they became ‘The Five’. The ladies held regular séances, communicating with spirits and analysing parts of the New Testament. They wrote about a new form of mystical thinking and receiving messages from higher spirits they called the ‘High Masters’.

Hilma af Klint at her studio at Hamngatan 5, Stockholm c1895. Photograph courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

In 1906, one of the ‘High Masters’ asked each of The Five to commission paintings for the ‘Temple’. The four women declined, stating it was too much of a spiritual burden, however af Klint accepted and began her first series of abstract paintings. She completed the first 111 pieces of this collection between 1907-1908 averaging almost 2 paintings a week. These paintings, predate any records of abstract styled artworks produced by anyone, including her famous male contemporaries such as Kandinsky, Pollock and Mondrian. Af Klint painted 193 pieces in her collection for the temple and expressed in her writings that she was unaware what the temple was and did not plan or sketch her paintings before starting, instead was spiritually guided as to what to create. 

Within the series of “The Paintings for the Temple”, Hilma af Klint produced ten large artworks depicting different stages of life, from childhood to old age. These ten pieces, which will be on display at the Art Gallery of NSW, are so large that it is assumed that they would have been lying flat on the ground whilst af Klint, walked on and around them to paint.Hilma af Klint The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 3, Youth 1907 By courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. HAK104, Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

Hilma af Klint Group IV, The ten largest, no 7, adulthood 1907. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation HaK108 Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

Hilma af Klint, barely exhibited any of her work during her life. Only showing a few pieces in smaller shows in Europe. It was after a chance meeting with Rudolf Steiner, a respected philosopher, that she invited him to Stockholm to see her collection. He was discouraging and disinterested in her work which devastated af Klint and she ceased painting for several years.

When she died in 1944, as a result of a traffic accident, she left a collection of over 1200 paintings and an array of notebooks and journals detailing her discoveries and research, to her nephew, with specific instructions to not show them for at least 20 years after her death as she didn’t believe the world was ready to see them. When uncovered in the late 1960’s, af Klint’s family attempted to donate the work to galleries but were rejected. Since then, a foundation has been created to manage her work and only in the last 20 years her name has been gaining a lot of attention, as the previously acknowledged male dominating history of Abstract Art has been rewritten.

“In an era of limited creative freedom for women, af Klint’s secret paintings became an outlet for her prodigious intelligence, spiritual quest and ground-breaking artistic vision.” – Art Gallery of NSW director, Michael Brand.

To buy your tickets visit Art Gallery of NSW website, or keep an eye out on our social media as we will be running some giveaways.


title image: Hilma af Klint exhibition, the Guggenheim museum October 2018 - April 2019. Photograph courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.