Kandinsky Was not the First?
Wassily Kandinsky is considered to be the pioneer of abstract art. However, this title may be claimed by a Swedish woman called Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944), who painted the first abstract picture in her art studio in Stockholm in 1906, five years earlier. For fairness sake, it should be noted that there have been other candidates as well: Frantisek Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich.
Hilma Af Klint, an Admiral’s daughter, was born in 1862 in Sweden, the country that allowed women to study art well before France, Germany or Italy. In 1882 she entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and after graduation she rented a studio in the artists’ quarter and gradually gained recognition as a landscape and portrait painter. She also had a passion for studying plants and animals: in 1900-1901 she worked as a drawing artist in the Veterinary Institute. Hilma was born into a Protestant family and came to Theosophy at an early age. It is easy to notice the benefits that Theosophy can offer to a young female artist, even without esotery. In the 19th century nobody doubted that great works of art were created inspiredly and there was hardly anyone who believed that when a woman was painting, the higher forces rejoiced and came to help her. But Theosophy founded by a woman (the Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) had a different viewpoint. Women were welcomed as members of the organization and even held senior positions. In fact, it was the first religious organization in Europe that did not discriminate against women.
In 1905 Hilma told that during one of séances she heard a voice saying: “You are to declare a new philosophy of life and you yourself are to become a part of the new kingdom. Your work will bear fruit.” Between November 1906 and March 1907 she created a series of abstract paintings named “Primordial Chaos”. Some of them resemble stormy seascapes with mysterious lights twinkling above the sea. Others are far from any particular representations and combine geometric shapes such as spirals with dynamic brushstrokes, letters of the alphabet and symbols. The images express moods and vaguely resemble the drawings she made (presumably unconsciously) during séances in the 1890s. Later, Surrealists called this method “automatic drawing”.
The “Primordial Chaos” series became the bud from which almost 200 abstract paintings evolved over the following years. Between August and December 1907 she created a series of monumental works called “The Ten Biggest” where the organic forms of her early abstractions gave way to a strict geometry: radiant ovals, circles and zigzags. However, the artist did not show any of her abstractions at any exhibitions. Moreover, in her will she specified that it could not be done until 20 years passed after her death.
09 March UPDATE : look “Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction” at Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016);