In 2019—75 years after her death—Hilma af Klint’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. broke attendance records at the Guggenheim Museum. Was this triumph a correction to the shameful oversight of a woman’s pioneering art or proof of af Klint’s belief that the world wasn’t ready to handle her vision? Perhaps both. After all, the Swedish artist—whose meticulously cosmic, ethereally scientific, richly pigmented works predate the pivotal abstract paintings of Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian—had made it clear that her work should not be shown for 20 years after her death. She died in 1944. As it turned out, it took many more decades before her work began to see light.
The show now opening at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, refers to af Klint’s long-hidden oeuvre as “The Secret Paintings,” which feels just right. A devotee of spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and Theosophy, the artist believed that she was a conduit for otherworldly communications. The show’s curator, Sue Cramer, observes that “af Klint’s relationship with the spirits who guided her was one of constant dialogue, a two-way street. Whilst receiving their messages, in the forms of images and words, she was also an active interpreter. Straddling heaven and earth, as she saw it, she combined these spiritual visions with her own research and knowledge of the contemporary world—of science, mathematics, religious and occult philosophies.”