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The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint died nearly 80 years ago in relative obscurity, but you might not immediately realize this if you look her up today. Her paintings—large-scale, vivid, symbolic, and abstract masterpieces infused with mysticism and spirituality—seem uncannily contemporary. But that is not the only reason: af Klint is also now a bonafide star, an art-world household name. In the past several years alone there has been an explosion of interest in her work, catalyzed in no small part via her blockbuster 2018 Guggenheim show in New York called “Paintings for the Future.”
Af Klint’s body of work, which bravely departed from the figurative art that was popular at the turn of the 20th century when she was working, predates the first Western abstract compositions by titans like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. It was a staggering revelation, to say the least. But as we rush to fit her into an art historical canon that has woefully excluded women, moving beyond the elevator pitch and the catchphrases that have emerged around af Klint is essential. Up until recently, many of the intricacies of her life, work, ambitions, and friendships, were not well-understood.
Opening for “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.” Photo by Paul Rudd, ©Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
That is part of the reason why Julia Voss decided to write the first-ever biography on the artist, which came out in English at the end of last year. Voss, a prominent German journalist, art critic, researcher, and curator, spent the better part of a decade learning Swedish and meticulously retracing af Klint’s life and her movements in Europe. Voss combed through more than 20,000 notebooks that belonged to the artist as well as her massive archive, which af Klint had left to her nephew. The biography includes several revelations about the Swedish painter’s inner life and desires.
We are headed into another two years that is sure to bring increased attention and reflection on the work of Af Klint. Her massive catalog raisonné is due out next month, edited by Swedish curator and art critic Daniel Birnbaum. An exhibition called “Swedish Ecstasy” at BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels opens this week. Next year, for the first time ever, there will be a show dedicated to Kandinsky and af Klint, curated by Birnbaum and Voss. On this week’s episode, Voss joins Artnet News Europe editor Kate Brown to dive into some of the more fascinating and under-considered aspects of the enigmatic and groundbreaking artist.
“Hilma af Klint: A Biography” by Julia Voss is available now from Chicago University Press.
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