Friday, August 15, 2014

Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction (exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki)

Hilma af Klint: Svanen / The Swan, nr 17, grupp IX/SUW, serie SUW/UW, 1915 © Courtesy Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet. Click to enlarge.
Taidehalli / Konsthallen / Kunsthalle Helsinki, Nervanderinkatu 3, 16 August - 28 September, 2014.
Curator: Iris Müller-Westermann (Moderna Museet).
    Helsinki vernissage 15 August 2014
    Deputy Mayor Ritva Viljanen, Museum Director Jan Förster, Director of Helsinki Festival Erik Söderblom.

Official introduction: "The woman who revolutionised our ideas about the history of art. Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was painting abstract works in the early 1900s, years before the landmark works by Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich that are today seen as the starting point of non-objective art. In her will, the Swedish af Klint protected her work from publicity, convinced that only future generations would be able to appreciate it."

"This highly successful exhibition produced by Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2013 made the work of the pioneering artist both world-famous and the talk of the day. The most extensive show ever produced of af Klint’s work, it will be exhibited at Kunsthalle Helsinki as part of the annual Helsinki Festival. Prior to Helsinki, the exhibition was on tour at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Museo Picasso in Málaga, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.  The extensive retrospective presents a body of work that was deliberately kept secret."

"When Hilma af Klint sought to render the invisible world visible in her paintings, she was doing so at a time when science and psychoanalysis were also probing things unseeable with the naked eye. Af Klint lived in an age of upheavals and technological leaps, such as the invention of X-rays, while also popular interest in spirituality increased."

"A technically accomplished painter, af Klint belonged to the first generation of women to receive their education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Hilma af Klint was a popular portraitist, who in her public works followed the traditional style of creating a faithful likeness of the subject. In parallel, she developed an entirely different and personal style, but kept it secret and never sought acceptance from the male-dominated world of art."

"Hilma af Klint’s work attests to the curiosity and enthusiasm with which she observed the world. The curator of the show, Iris Müller-Westermann from Moderna Museet says: “What fascinates in Hilma is that which is common to all cultures: the attempt to understand the world and one’s place in it.”"

"Kunsthalle in co-operation with Helsinki Festival. The exhibition is produced by Moderna Museet. Curator: Iris Müller-Westermann."

AA: The sensational Hilma af Klint touring exhibition launched last year at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, breaking all records there, is now in Helsinki.

Hilma af Klint is - justifiedly, in my opinion - called the first pioneer of abstract art. Of course there are always predecessors, but Hilma af Klint was a visionary professional who created an enormous body of work. She was not just a pioneer but also already a major and determined explorer in abstract art. Some of her works are small, but there are also huge series and cycles of works.

That her abstract works came into being and a long time remained in secret changes only one thing: she did not have followers. Kandinsky and Malevich were the ones who influenced everybody who came after. Hilma af Klint remained unknown until the 1980s.

For me the fact that this magnificent oeuvre was created in privacy is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Hilma af Klint story. We usually start the history of plastic art from cave paintings and drawings, although they were not meant to be seen, either. They were created with supreme taste and skill only to exist. Perhaps as elements of magic, of expressing the invisible, capturing the essence of vital animals of prey. The images were secret instruments.

Film correspondences come to mind constantly as I wander through the Hilma af Klint exhibition. Three weeks ago I saw the Henri Langlois exhibition at La Cinémathèque française with its rich sections of original art for abstract cinema. The story goes back to before WWI. Ginna & Corra (1911-1912), Léopold Survage* (Rythme coloré, 1913), Richter, Fischinger... Sharits... Jordan Belson's Mandala.

But Hilma af Klint's most obvious spiritual affinity is with Harry Smith, shaman, theosophist, pantheist, anthropologist, deep into American Indian cultures, occultist, Kabbalist... and among other things, an abstract film-maker, often hand-painting frames. Smith titled his films with opus numbers; the best-known include Early Abstractions and Heaven and Earth Magic.

This exhibition is a spiritual journey. It is a thoughtfully curated entity with a visionary scope.

I saw the Suomenlinna exhibition in 1988 (Hilma af Klints hemliga bilder, Nordiskt Konstcentrum, Helsinki) which already made a deep impression in Finland. It may have been the first Hilma af Klint solo exhibition of her abstract art anywhere. Even previously, the Swedish art historian Åke Fant had highlighted Hilma af Klint in a Nordic conference in Helsinki in 1984.

In terms of exhibition there is no problem with the oil paintings. But the most sizable works have been created on tempera on paper. As a film archivist I can symphathize with the daunting challenges of preservation and exhibition here. The challenges are similar to those with moving panoramas, also created with tempera, as explained by Erkki Huhtamo in his recent magnum opus Illusions in Motion. Hilma af Klint's giant cycles can also be imagined as moving panoramas - not about the visible world but about the invisible one.

I have been fascinated for a long time by the prohibition of the (figurative) image. Abstract art such as Hilma af Klint's does not break that ban.

* Survage was born in Lappeenranta and spent his childhood and youth in Finland but created his art in Moscow, Paris, and Nice.

Moderna Museet 2013:
Abstrakt pionjär Stockholm 16 februari 2013 - 26 maj 2013

Moderna Museet visar Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) i stort format med många verk som aldrig visats innan. Denna retrospektiva utställning presenterar Hilma af Klint som en av de största svenska konstnärerna.

Missa inte den internationellt mest omskrivna utställningen i Moderna Museets historia, bland annat i New York Times, El Pais, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Tate Etc, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Helsingin Sanomat, Weekendavisen, Artforum, Art, Frieze...

Hilma af Klint var en pionjär inom den abstrakta konsten, redan 1906 lämnade hon ett föreställande måleri bakom sig. Mellan 1906 och 1915 tillkom närmare 200 abstrakta målningar av delvis monumentala format. I likhet med Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian och Kazimir Malevitj som hittills betraktats som abstraktionens förgrundsgestalter intresserade sig Hilma af Klint för andliga strömningar i sin samtid så som spiritismen, teosofin och senare antroposofin. Hilma af Klints konst handlar om medvetandet av en andlig dimension, något som var marginaliserat i en alltmer materialistiskt orienterat värld. När hon målade ansåg hon att högre medvetanden talade genom henne. I hennes enastående verk kombineras geometriska former och symboler med det ornamentala. Hennes mångbottnade bildvärld vill ge insikt i existensens olika dimensioner där mikrokosmos och makrokosmos speglar varandra.

Lös Mysteriet på Moderna Museet

Upplev Hilma af Klint på ett annorlunda sätt! Följ ett mystiskt spår in i utställningen Hilma af Klint och se om ni kan klura ut det magiska lösenordet.

Mysterievandring för barn i alla åldrar

Hilma af Klint efterlämnade över 1 000 målningar, akvareller och skisser. Hon ställde visserligen ut sina tidiga, föreställande verk men vägrade visa sitt abstrakta måleri under sin livstid. I sitt testamente hade hon bestämt att de banbrytande verken inte skulle få visas offentligt förrän tjugo år efter hennes död, först då trodde hon nämligen att människor skulle vara redo att helt och fullt förstå deras betydelse.

Moderna Museets retrospektiva utställning presenterar Hilma af Klints viktigaste abstrakta verk samt målningar och verk på papper som aldrig tidigare visats, och ger en fördjupad bild av konstnärskapet. Hennes omfattande dag- och anteckningsböcker har ingått i den ingående forskningen som ligger till grund för utställningen, som omfattar runt 200 målningar och verk på papper och kommer att turnera internationellt 2013-2015.

Hilma af Klint - Abstrakt pionjär är producerad av Moderna Museet:
Curator: Iris Müller-Westermann
Assisterande curator: Jo Widoff
Intendent förmedling: Ylva Hillström
Scenografi: chezweitz&partner, Berlin. Detlef Weitz med Hans Hagemeister och Harald Niessner.
Utställningsturnén organiseras i samarbete med:
Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, 15 juni-6 oktober 2013
Museo Picasso Málaga, Málaga, 21 oktober 2013-9 februari 2014
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, 7 mars–6 juli 2014

The New York Times
April 29, 2013
Giving a Swedish Pioneer of Abstraction Her Due

"STOCKHOLM — On a cold evening in mid-February, an international mix of journalists, scholars and curators gathered inside the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for a first glimpse at an exhibit of works by a Swedish pioneer that threatens to upend long-held views about the origins of 20th-century abstract art.

The visitors to the exhibition opening at the Moderna, a contemporary art museum on the island of Skeppsholmen, were greeted by curlicues, snail-like spirals, geometric flowers, concentric circles, Venn diagrams and phrases in cursive script — all intertwined and juxtaposed on 10 canvases 3.2 meters, or more than 10 feet, tall and 2.4 meters wide. The works, featuring bubble-gum pink, burnt orange, peach, lavender, dusty blues and bright yellows, were at once enticing, playful and slightly trippy.

“It’s pretty extraordinary to imagine this rather small woman, 157 centimeters tall or so, doing these huge paintings,” said Iris Müller-Westermann, the curator of international art at the Moderna, which is showing “Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction,” the first-ever retrospective of the Swedish painter (1862-1944), through May 26. “She was doing something that was not on the retina of people at her time, in terms of size, color, composition and, of course, the abstraction — she was very much a pioneer.”

Indeed, as seen in the title of the exhibition, the Moderna shows af Klint as an innovator of 20th-century abstract art, one who worked with abstract imagery as early as 1906, arguably several years before Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Delaunay and Frantisek Kupka, long considered the trailblazers of the movement.

“Kandinsky was actively campaigning for himself as being the first abstract artist, constantly writing his gallery and saying, ‘Hey, you know, I was the first! I painted the first abstract painting in 1911!”’ said Julia Voss, an art historian and art critic for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “He was obviously successful, as he’s widely considered the father of 20th-century abstraction. But all the while, af Klint, much more privately, had already been creating these striking, abstract visuals for years.”

In the March edition of the arts magazine Tate Etc., Ms. Voss campaigned on af Klint’s behalf, arguing that the Swedish artist, not Kandinsky, was the first abstract painter of the 20th century.

Georg Imdahl, a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Münster in Germany and an art critic for the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, is more hesitant on the matter. “She developed somehow outside the art scene of the time, so I think we need to learn more about her intentions as an artist,” Mr. Imdahl said. “That said, there are several of her works which I would consider integrating into a discussion of the genesis of 20th-century abstraction.”

The exhibition adds to the global debate about the canon of contemporary art. “In which box does this strange artist belong?” Ms. Müller-Westermann said of reactions to af Klint’s works. “Is she in the same box as Kandinsky and all the abstract pioneers, or maybe it’s easier to say it’s not art at all, just some woman who did something crazy?”

She continued, “The category does not interest me so much, to be honest; what intrigues me is simply to consider what is there. What did she see, what do we see?”

Af Klint, who was born in Stockholm, showed an early interest in nature, mathematics and art, and she began studying at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1882. After graduating with honors in 1887, she quickly gained a reputation in the region for being a talented landscape and portrait painter.

While her representational work blossomed in the public eye, af Klint also continued a more private pursuit: she had begun showing an interest in the occult and attending séances as early as 1879, at the age of 17. Her curiosity about the spiritual realm soon developed into a lifelong interest in spiritism, theosophy and anthroposophy.

During the late 1890s, af Klint began holding séances with four female artist friends, and they meticulously documented their proceedings in notebooks. The four women practiced automatic writing and drawing, meaning that they did not consciously guide the movement of their pens, and it was during this decade of spiritual exploration that af Klint’s abstract imagery and motifs began to emerge.

In 1904, during one of these sessions, a spirit allegedly told af Klint that she would make paintings that would represent the immortal aspects of man. This proved to be the turning point in af Klint’s work: from the naturalistic to the abstract, from portrayals of physical reality to conveying the invisible.

From 1906 to 1915, af Klint created what is considered to be her central body of work: Paintings for the Temple, a grouping of 193 works. The artist claimed that she had merely served as a medium for the body of work, and that spiritual forces had guided her hand during its execution. As the commission progressed and the artwork developed from the organic and nature-inspired to the more geometric, af Klint explained, she increased control and influence over what she painted, serving more as an interpreter than as a medium.

While the artist’s naturalistic work continued to be exhibited in Stockholm and beyond during her lifetime, her abstract work was largely kept private. In her will, she even asked that her abstract paintings not be shown in public until at least twenty years after her death, noting that audiences were not yet capable of understanding her work.

The first large-format show to include af Klint’s abstract work actually came 42 years after her death, in 1986, when Maurice Tuchman, then the curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, included her work in “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.” Since then, af Klint’s most recognizable works have been featured in shows at the Museum of Modern Art PS 1 in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Despite this, af Klint’s position among her fellow abstract painters is not without its critics, and in the recent Museum of Modern Art show “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” which closed on April 15, none of her works were shown.

Mr. Tuchman, speaking by telephone from New York, explained that there were several reasons af Klint’s works might sometimes be left out. “To a large degree, modern art history is made by the marketplace,” Mr. Tuchman said. “Af Klint hasn’t been out there to be seen and traded. She hasn’t been purchased by important collectors and more importantly, major museums,” he said about af Klint’s work, which is owned exclusively by a foundation.

Both Mr. Tuchman and Ms. Müller-Westermann also cited the difficulties women faced in gaining recognition in an art world largely defined by men, and circumspection toward art with connections to the mystical and occult.

“‘Spiritual’ is still a very dirty word in the art world,” Mr. Tuchman said. “When the prejudice against the idea of the spiritual life in af Klint’s work is overcome, which will require scholarship, then perhaps she will really take hold in the broader conversation.”

The exhibition at the Moderna showcases the diversity of af Klint’s work, from her early botanical studies to the ornamental and geometric abstract work that was so ahead of its time, and much of it is on display for the first time. It also undertook a major preservation project, involving extensive conservation work and the digitalization of some 26,000 pages of af Klint’s notebooks.

Already, the international reach of the artist is growing. This summer, the Stockholm exhibition will go to the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, then to the Museo Picasso Málaga in Spain in the autumn and to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark at dates to be determined. Five of her works will also be featured in the Central Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 24.

For the moment, though, Ms. Müller-Westermann is happy to see the show in Stockholm draw large audiences. “This was really an artist who dared to think beyond her time, to step out of what was commonly accepted,” she said. “She had visions about bigger contexts where it was not about making money or being very famous, but about doing something much more humble: trying to understand the world and who we are in it.”

“Hilma af Klint, a Pioneer of Abstraction” is on view at Moderna Museet in Stockholm until May 26. It will be on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin from June 15 to Oct. 6 and at the Museo Picasso Málaga from Oct. 21 to Feb. 9.

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