Review: Hilma af Klint, Painting the Unseen
Serpentine Galleries, 3 March – 15 May 2016
When the name of Hilma af Klint is dropped in art critical conversation, chances are likely the following events will unfold. Firstly, the critic will (justifiedly so) assume that a fair amount of readers have no clue as to who this person is. Secondly, he or she then has to the find new words to tell the same story others have repeated countless times before: that the Swedish artist, born in 1862, enjoyed official arts education and became somewhat known during her lifetime as an albeit slightly boring landscape painter, that she however secretly worked prolifically on an abstract body of work inspired by an esoteric spirituality which she found through theosophic séances she held with four other women trying to contact “high masters”, but that nobody ever found out until 1986, when her paintings were shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (in part also due because she stipulated in her will that her work was not to be exhibited until two decades after her death). Thirdly – or secondly if the reader already knew all this – the discussion will then focus on the seemingly catch-22 about whether she was a pioneer of abstract art, years before Kandinsky, Mondriaan or Malevich, or an offbeat mystic woman in the early 1900s.
There will be arguments found for either side.
Non-believers will say her work contains mostly figurative elements and that even the geometric abstrahered forms are solely representations of cellular structures of natural things. Believers will counter that a considerable amount of work features abstraction before 1910, the year MoMA director Alfred Barr pinpointed the first abstract painting. Non-believers will say she was a spiritualist and not and artist, that she never explicitly stated that the works were intended as abstract paintings, because “the pictures were painted “through” her with “force” […]”. Believers will mention that the canonized men also were fascinated with incorporeal powers.
But as Spectator editor Martin Gayford wrote: “Being first, chronologically, is perhaps overrated; it’s being better that counts.” And perhaps she was not. A lot of her colour choices lack punch, and her defined lines render the paintings rather flat – which adds to the modern feel of the geometrical paintings, but does not do anything for the figurative ones. Combined, it results oftentimes in paintings that visually, aesthetically, are just not that pleasing.
Of course, this was maybe never their intent, since most of them were made unconsciously, through a process the surrealists would later term automatic writing, to represent af Klint’s mystic visions.
However, before getting caught up in the same vicious metaphorical betting competition, perhaps a more interesting question is why her work is exhibited now, and why in the Serpentine Galleries.
The Serpentine Galleries’ mission statement reads: “Championing new ideas in contemporary art since it opened in 1970, the Serpentine has presented pioneering exhibitions of 2,263 artists over 45 years, showing a wide range of work from emerging practitioners to the most internationally recognised artists and architects of our time.” It is unclear how a retrospective of af Klint, who died in 1944, could fit in with this statement emphasizing the contemporary.
Perhaps it has something to do with reevaluating a female artist. Tying in with recent popular feminist tendencies, the Serpentine Galleries might think it noble to reassert a woman’s contribution to art history. However, af Klint’s story is not a feminist one, and hence it would not make sense to portray it like that.
In line with this, it could however stem from the general, apparently incessant need to find new pioneers – preferably ones who were supposedly unacknowledged in their own time, but influential long thereafter. Recollecting forgotten names from the past is indeed “curatorial gold”, and putting the record straight a pleasant act for everyone involved.
On another note, it could be that the exhibition wants to address a deeper philosophical issue. Af Klint’s work is inundated with, or rather emanated from, mystic experiences; so for what reason would this be relevant now, if not to question where spirituality can be found today? Is it in art? Or is it in the crossover with technological innovations that surround us, similar to the times of the modernists, in which electromagnetic waves, x-rays and Darwin’s theory of evolution were discovered?
All in all, the discourse about art historical timelines and categories overshadows the question why this exhibition is in the right place, at the right time.
 KELLAWAY, Kate, “Hilma af Klint: a painter possessed”, The Guardian, 21 February 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/21/hilma-af-klint-occult-spiritualism-abstract-serpentine-gallery
 GAYFORD, Martin, “Is this female Swedish painter a major rediscovery – or a minor footnote?”, The Spectator, 12 March 2016, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/03/is-this-female-swedish-painter-a-major-rediscovery-or-a-minor-footnote/
 DU TOIT, Wessie, “Category error: Hilma af Klint”, Apollo Magazine, 15 March 2016, http://www.apollo-magazine.com/category-error-hilma-af-klint/