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Hilma af Klint

A Biography

Translated by Anne Posten
A highly anticipated biography of the enigmatic and popular Swedish painter.
 
The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was forty-four years old when she broke with the academic tradition in which she had been trained to produce a body of radical, abstract works the likes of which had never been seen before. Today, it is widely accepted that af Klint was one of the earliest abstract academic painters in Europe. 
 
But this is only part of her story. Not only was she a working female artist, she was also an avowed clairvoyant and mystic. Like many of the artists at the turn of the twentieth century who developed some version of abstract painting, af Klint studied Theosophy, which holds that science, art, and religion are all reflections of an underlying life-form that can be harnessed through meditation, study, and experimentation. Well before Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich declared themselves the inventors of abstraction, af Klint was working in a nonrepresentational mode, producing a powerful visual language that continues to speak to audiences today. The exhibition of her work in 2018 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City attracted more than 600,000 visitors, making it the most-attended show in the history of the institution.
 
Despite her enormous popularity, there has not yet been a biography of af Klint—until now. Inspired by her first encounter with the artist’s work in 2008, Julia Voss set out to learn Swedish and research af Klint’s life—not only who the artist was but what drove and inspired her. The result is a fascinating biography of an artist who is as great as she is enigmatic.

440 pages | 44 color plates, 49 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Art: Art--Biography, Art--General Studies, European Art

Biography and Letters

Gender and Sexuality

Reviews

"Julia Voss’s dazzling and timely biography of Hilma af Klint explores not only the life of this extraordinary artist but highlights the important contributions of both mysticism and women artists—so long excluded from the art-historical canon—to the story of modern art. I couldn’t put it down."
 

Jennifer Higgie

"Julia Voss’s biography is the indispensable resource for anyone interested in pioneering artist Hilma af Klint.  With her thousands of pages of notebooks in Swedish, af Klint remained beyond the reach of scholars without the ability to read Swedish.  By mastering Swedish and doing superb archival research on af Klint and the women around her, Voss reveals a Hilma we did not know, including a gender fluidity that underlies many of her motifs. Voss has also recovered the cosmopolitan culture of Stockholm in this period—from art exhibitions and science expositions to the robust interest in spiritualism that parallels that in Berlin. Written in lively prose, Voss’s book is a pleasure to read in the translation by Anne Posten."
 

Linda Henderson, University of Texas at Austin

"A fascinating book on the exhilarating life and work of Hilma af Klint. Julia Voss has been instrumental in bringing her story to the forefront and tells her life with such sensitivity, generosity and insight. A must read!"
 

Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art without Men

Table of Contents

A Note from the Translator
Chronology

Introduction

Part I. Family, Childhood, and Youth in Stockholm
1. Mary Wollstonecraft Visits Sweden and Is Upset
2. Birth
3. School and Religion
4. An Exhibition in London
5. Bertha Valerius and the Dead
6. Kerstin Cardon’s Painting School
7. Hermina’s Death

Part II. Study at the Academy and Independent Work
1. The Academy
2. Guardian Spirit
3. The Prize
4. Anna Cassel
5. “My First Experience with Mediumship”
6. The Young Artist
7. Dr. Helleday and Love
8. The Five
9. Art from the Orient
10. Rose and Cross
11. At the Veterinary Institute
12. Children’s Books and Decorative Art
13. Italy
14. Genius

Part III. Paintings for the Temple
1. Old Images
2. Revolution
3. Primordial Chaos
4. Eros
5. Medium
6. The Ten Largest
7. “I Was the Instrument of Ecstasy”
8. Rudolf Steiner Visits Sweden
9. The Young Ones
10. Sigrid Lancén
11. The Association of Swedish Women Artists
12. Frank Heyman
13. Island Kingdom in Mälaren
14. First Exhibition with the Theosophists
15. Tree of Knowledge
16. The Kiss
17. Singoalla
18. The Baltic Exhibition
19. War
20. Saint George
21. Kandinsky in Stockholm
22. Parsifal and Atom
23. The Studio on Munsö
24. Thomasine Anderson

Part IV. Dornach, Amsterdam, and London
1. The Suitcase Museum
2. Flowers, Mosses, and Lichens
3. First Visit to the Goetheanum
4. “Belongs to the Astral World According to Doctor Steiner”
5. The Fire and the Letter
6. Amsterdam
7. London

Part V. Temple and Later Years
1. The Temple and the Spiral
2. +x
3. A Temple in New York
4. The London Blitz
5. Future Woman
6. National Socialism
7. Lecture in Stockholm
8. “Degenerate” Art in Germany and Abstract Art in New York
9. Tyra Kleen and the Plan for a Museum
10 Last Months
11. Conclusion

Afterword by Johan af Klint
Afterword by Ulrika af Klint
Appendix 1. Hilma af Klint’s Travels and Places of Residence
Appendix 2. The Library of Hilma af Klint
Acknowledgments
Illustration Sources
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Excerpt

A deal is a deal, or so thought the officers of the Saint George civic guard company of Amsterdam’s District 11. They wanted a portrait of themselves to commemorate their service to the city, as was customary. It had to be dignified, reflecting their virtues as brave and responsible citizens, but without being stuffy and formal, like the old civic guard portraits. In those earlier group paintings, everyone appeared in the same stiff pose, and they all looked so much alike it was hard to tell one person from another. No, these leading men of the great city of Amsterdam wanted something lively and colorful to hang in their headquarters—something modern.

Ordinarily, Amsterdam civic guards hired Amsterdam painters for such an important commission. The Saint George officers, however, broke with tradition. They went beyond the city limits and sought out a celebrated master painter from Haarlem. The terms of the agreement were clear: the artist was to come to Amsterdam on a regular basis, and the sixteen guardsmen would take turns posing for him in a borrowed studio. He was to be paid sixty guilders per figure.

Everything should have gone smoothly. Travel from Haarlem to Amsterdam was relatively easy now that there was a canal between the two cities. The painter could take a barge or go by land along the tow path. Overnight stays in Amsterdam would be necessary, but not too much of an inconvenience. Moreover, this was an experienced painter of civic guard portraits; he had already completed three of them for Haarlem companies and was about to start work on his fourth. He could give the Amsterdam militiamen just what they were looking for, since what they were looking for was just what they had seen in his paintings.

In the end, though, it did not work out well. Things took a bad turn when, after a number of sessions in Amsterdam and making good progress on the large canvas, the painter suddenly stopped coming to the city. He refused to leave his Haarlem home and studio. It was too much trouble, he complained, and his lodgings in Amsterdam were costing him a lot of money for which he was not getting reimbursed. If they wanted the painting finished, they would have to come to him.

That was certainly not the arrangement, the officers argued as they filed the first of several legal complaints against him. He could not possibly expect all of them to travel to Haarlem. Come to Amsterdam and finish the painting, they demanded, or they would have another artist finish it. Still hopeful that they could persuade the painter to resume his work, they sweetened the pot and offered him an additional six guilders per figure.
By 1637, four years after the commission, negotiations had broken down completely. Much to the dismay of the Amsterdam guardsmen, Frans Hals would not budge. He was leaving more than a thousand guilders on the table, a significant amount of money for any seventeenth-century artist but especially for a man with financial problems. But he could not afford to be away from Haarlem so often, or so he said—he had apprentices to supervise, other projects to attend to, and a family to care for. He called their bluff. Let someone else finish the damn painting.

It was not the first time that a brilliant but stubborn and irascible artist had aggravated a client—Michelangelo famously caused splitting headaches for the popes he served (and vice versa)—nor would it be the last; Rembrandt, a contemporary of Hals, was a difficult character, and Picasso was best avoided when he was in “one of his moods.” We do not know how typical such behavior was for Hals. But one thing is certain: never again would a commission from an Amsterdam civic guard company come his way. This book offers a portrait of one of the greatest portrait painters in history. The name of Frans Hals may not be as familiar as other marquee names of early modern art, especially the outstanding portraitists of the seventeenth century: Velázquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt. And yet, those who have seen Hals’s work in museums or in art history books will immediately recognize his style. Whether or not they know of Hals, they know “Hals”—that rough, loose brushwork, not unlike what we find in later Impressionist paintings, that when viewed up close seems like nothing but abstract daubings, but when seen from a distance so beautifully captures the well-to- do citizens of the Dutch “Golden Age.”

It is a style like none other in the period. Rembrandt, of course, put his own mark on portraiture with a painterly manner that grew coarser over the years. One contemporary critic—the painter Gérard de Lairesse, whose portrait Rembrandt did late in his own life—complained that the paint in Rembrandt’s works “runs down the piece like shit [drek].” Hals and Rembrandt were likely working side by side in the same Amsterdam workshop for a brief time, and no doubt Rembrandt was impressed by what Hals, his elder by almost twenty years, was doing with paint on his panels and canvases. But there is no mistaking a Hals for a Rembrandt. Hals may have painted in what was by then a well-established tradition, but he had an approach to rendering sitters that was all his own.

Over the course of a long career, more than fifty years as a master konstschilder (fine art painter), Hals changed people’s ideas and expectations as to what portraiture can do—indeed, what a painting should look like. A portrait by Hals, with its visible brushstrokes and bold execution, might lack fine detail and a smooth finish, but it more than made up for this with a sense of the sitter’s animated presence, captured with unprecedented energy and immediacy. Some dismissed his works as “sloppy” and “unfinished.” For others, they were fresh and cutting-edge. Connoisseurs or collectors—the Dutch called them liefhebbers; the term, derived from the word for love and used for art lovers generally, could also be translated as “amateur” (which comes from the Latin amator, lover) but without the pejorative sense (in contrast with “expert”) it often carries today—sought him out for portraits that they could proudly hang on the walls of their homes and boardrooms and impress visitors with their cultivated taste. To his contemporaries, in Haarlem and beyond, Hals was, for several decades at least, the modern painter par excellence.
 

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