Hilma af Klint: A Biography by Julia Voss (Translated from German by Anne Posten) - review by Griselda Pollock

Griselda Pollock

Stairways to Heaven

Hilma af Klint: A Biography


University of Chicago Press 405pp £28

Between October 2018 and April 2019, the Guggenheim in New York gave over its entire Frank Lloyd Wright-designed interior to the abstract paintings of the Swedish artist and medium Hilma af Klint, who died in 1944. The choice of location, with its spiralling structure, was a realisation of this artist’s unfulfilled dream of exhibiting her spiritually inspired work in a building – she called it a ‘temple’ – whose form would lead the viewers upward on a journey to higher levels of experience and consciousness. The show broke the museum’s attendance record, attracting 600,000 visitors, selling 30,000 catalogues and forcing organisers to extend visiting hours to accommodate the demand for tickets.

During her lifetime, af Klint tried several times unsuccessfully to garner attention for her abstract works. In 1932 she stipulated that her paintings should not be shown until twenty years after her death, by which point, she hoped, a world ready to appreciate them might have evolved. It took until 1986 for these works to be shown in public for the first time, when they formed part of an exhibition of abstract art in Los Angeles. That show’s curator, Maurice Tuchman, heretically, if correctly, stressed the spiritual rather than the formalist impulses behind the development of abstract art in the early 20th century. In the then dominant narrative of its evolution, the ‘embarrassing’ engagements of many celebrated founders of abstraction with spiritualist movements such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy, and even with aspects of the occult, were veiled, if not repressed. In this cleansed version, the ruling triumvirate of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian were presented as the originators of European abstract art. Almost every woman – and there were many – who pioneered and participated in the elaboration of abstraction worldwide was sidelined.

The process by which af Klint was allowed into the margins of art history was slow. In the last decade, however, galleries in most major European, North American and Antipodean capitals have mounted exhibitions of af Klint’s work. In 2023, she will feature in a double act with Piet

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