The Art Gallery of New South Wales has opened the first survey in Australia by visionary Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), whose remarkable mystical paintings bring new perspectives to the narratives of modern art and have become an international sensation.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings brings these works to the Asia-Pacific region for the first time. The exhibition presents over 120 works, from early drawings to the artist’s monumental paintings, late watercolours and notebooks.
Spanning more than four decades of the artist’s practice, this comprehensive exhibition includes works ranging from the 1890s to 1941. Many of her most renowned paintings are featured, as well as others that are little known.
The exhibition is curated by independent curator Sue Cramer and was developed in collaboration with Art Gallery of NSW senior curator of modern and contemporary international art Nicholas Chambers.
When af Klint began creating her ambitious new works in 1906, no one had seen paintings like hers before – so monumental in scale, with such radiant colour combinations, enigmatic symbols and other-worldly shapes. Influenced by the spiritualist practices of her time, af Klint believed that her paintings contained messages for humanity communicated to her through the visions she received from spirits.
Stored away and scarcely known for decades, the startling re-discovery of af Klint’s “secret paintings” has captured the imagination of contemporary audiences, with a 2019 exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim Museum breaking attendance records and taking New York by storm.
“We are thrilled that the first international art exhibition to return to the Art Gallery since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our exhibition schedules is the remarkable work of the pioneering female artist Hilma af Klint,” said Art Gallery of NSW director Dr Michael Brand.
“Her exploration of spiritualism, science and nature presents a timely message for Australian audiences, particularly as we continue to face challenges as a result of the global pandemic.”
This exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discover the extraordinary artistic achievements of an artist whose re-discovered work is now captivating audiences around the world and prompting museums to question art history narratives,” said Dr Brand.
Exhibition highlights include 52 works from the artist’s decade-long project, The Paintings for the Temple, which encompasses 193 works, organised broadly into ten different series, made between 1906 and 1915.
These paintings include many of the first examples of abstract art in the West, predating abstract works by af Klint’s male contemporaries Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.
Af Klint’s works are directly influenced by the artist’s early experiments with the spiritualist group The Five and her deep engagement with spiritualism, Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. A group of large drawings collectively authored by the members of The Five are displayed in the exhibition.
Other highlights include Primordial Chaos, the first series in The Paintings for The Temple, which was created between November 1906 and December 1907. Comprising 26 small paintings many of which resemble mysterious occult charts, Primordial Chaos includes the artist’s first abstract works, showing her radical move away from the conventional naturalistic style she learnt as a student at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the 1890s.
A centrepiece of the exhibition is The Ten Largest – af Klint’s celebrated series of exuberant and colourful paintings, each over three metres high, created between October and December in 1907. These ten enormous paintings are brimming with wondrous arrangements of shapes and motifs, through which the artist explores the four stages of human development from childhood and youth, to adulthood and old age.
A significant number of abstract and ethereal watercolours from the last two decades of the artist’s life concludes the exhibition, including several never before placed on public display. In them, af Klint continues her spiritualist and artistic enquiry seeking to directly depict the spirit world and the invisible forces that exist within nature.
Born in Stockholm in 1862, af Klint was one of the first women to study painting at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with honours in 1887. She established herself as a respected painter in Stockholm and, like many of her contemporaries, became deeply engaged with spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and Theosophy, which had a profound influence on her practice.
In 1896, af Klint and four other like-minded women founded a spiritual group named The Five and studied esoteric texts, conducted séances, exercised automatic writing and mediumistic drawing.
Following a traffic accident, Klint died in the autumn of 1944, aged almost 82, leaving behind more than 1,300 rarely seen works and 124 notebooks. Her works have since been displayed in major museums in New York, London, Stockholm and São Paulo.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is supported by the NSW Government through its tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW and presented with the co-operation of The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm in association with Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings
Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery Road, The Domain (Sydney)
Exhibition continues to 19 September 2021
Entry fees apply
For more information, visit: www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au for details.
Image: Installation view of Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings – photo by Jenni Carter / AGNSW