Hilma af Klint is a pioneering abstract artist that you’ve (quite probably) never heard of. Hilma’s works from the early 20th century predates all of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, yet she does not have their reputation. So, in this new exhibition at Serpentine Galleries – which has brought together recently restored works that have never been seen in the UK before – we have the opportunity to assess drawings and paintings from across her career.
So what of her works?
Well, let’s just say this straight out the gate – at first glance, her works can seem a bit odd. In fact, they can still seem odd even after ten minutes. You see, Hilma was a spiritualist. Fascinated with the occult, Hilma and four other female artists formed a group called ‘The Five’ and, together, they would conduct séances to help direct their art, to open up new channels for them.
And a lot of that mysticism can be seen in the strange, recurring motifs in Hilma’s work. There are towering pyramids, shimmering orbs of light, serpents entwining themselves around unsuspecting women, blazing crosses… There’s a sense of the occult everywhere.
But then, as you look more closely, you realise that Hilma’s works, abstract as they are, are exploring duality – male and female, light and dark. Even life and death. Snails return again and again – a representation of evolution and even resurrection – and eggs, representing birth and creation, are an almost constant presence.
And it is this fascination with the circle of life that is the focus of The Ten Largest (1907), the highlight of the exhibition. This series examined the four stages of life – childhood, youth, adulthood and old age, through a series of vast works, painted on paper laid out on Hilma’s floor, then affixed onto canvas.
Eight works from this series are on show in the Serpentine Gallery and they are beauties – gone are the harsh contrasts of her other works to be replaced with delicate hues of lavender, pinks and yellows. The snails and eggs are there, as ever. But they are joined by flowers (Hilma was a fine botanical drawer) and swirls. These are works that are as uplifting as they are fascinating.
It would be easy to assume that, as a woman, Hilma’s work has been marginalised simply because of her sex. But that’s not the case here. Hilma worked in isolation from other abstract artists. In fact, she was so unsure of how her radical art would be received that she stipulated that her work should be kept out of the public eye for 20 years after her death.
It is therefore only now we can begin to appreciate Hilma’s radical work, and consider it alongside other avant-garde artists working at the turn of the 20th century. An impressive exhibition on a most unusual artist.
Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen
Serpentine Galleries, London to May 15, 2016
Image Credits: Installation views © Jerry Hardman-Jones