There is a very good exhibition at the Serpentine at the moment. Hilma Af Klint: Painting The Unseen, focuses on the surreal, abstract paintings of af Klint (1862-1944), which pre-dated the abstracts of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, (usually thought to be the first pure abstract works of art), by at least ten years. There is another show coming up at the Courtauld in June however, which will dispute this claim. It will feature the work of Georgiana Houghton who like af Klint was also a spiritualist, and channelled artwork through spirit guides, but unlike af Klint, publicly exhibited her abstract works (at a gallery in Old Bond street in 1871). No matter who lays claim to being the first abstract artist, this exhibition of af Klint's work is an extraordinary show of beautiful imagery.
Af Klint studied at Stockholm's Royal Academy of Fine Arts and exhibited traditional landscapes and portraits as well as creating botanical illustrations. During the late 1880s she formed a group with four other like-minded female artists who called themselves The Five (De Fem). In private they conducted séances experimenting with automatic writing and drawing.
In the course of one séance in 1905 af Klint recieved a message from a discarnate entity who the group named Amaliel, who encouraged her to create a series of works entitled The Paintings for the Temple, which were made up of mostly abstract works. The Paintings for the Temple were created between 1905 and 1915, and deal with themes of opposing forces such as light/dark, male/female, good/evil and symbols drawn from alchemy, science and a variety of spiritual philosophies.
What intrigues me about these pieces is the fact that these works were channelled from spirit to be used in a church-like temple, yet af Klint chose not to publicly exhibit these works in her lifetime, and stipulated in her will that the paintings remain hidden until twenty years after her death. Af Klint thought that these works would not be understood by critics and the general public alike, and despite Sweden's neutrality during the war, there was always the risk of her being branded a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis and having the work confiscated and possibly destroyed. Af Klint's paintings didn't surface until 1986 however, and have been causing a stir in the art world ever since.
Personal favourites of the works from this show are the series entitled -The Ten Largest (1907), located in the central gallery of the Serpentine space. They are huge paintings that deal with the theme of the cycle of life. They were painted on paper which was then pasted onto canvas. I was seduced by the gorgeous combinations of bold and pastel colours that Af Klint used. They are so life-affirming combined together with the looping curlicues of her handwriting and the organic, nature/science-inspired imagery. They are also more successful in my opinion than those in which she uses representational imagery.
I really recommend this exhibition, it is one of the best of the year that I have visited so far. I'm looking forward to comparing these works to the abstract, spiritualist paintings of Georgiana Houghton when that exhibition opens at the Courtauld in June.
Hilma Af Klint: Painting The Unseen
until 15th May