Art History Mystery, Chasing Kandinsky and Finding Hilma Af Klint
by Renee Kimball
1986, Community College, Day One of Art Appreciation. Clumping to the podium on wooden clogs, dressed like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, the teacher stated we would learn two truths about art: 1) Art is subjective; and 2) with Art, there is always something more.
Wassily Kandinsky. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.
This post began about Wassily Kandinsky, but surprisingly, things quickly moved someplace else and about someone else. And, just like that, there was something more to the story–a real art history mystery.
In the long story of art, Kandinsky is the Father of Abstract Art. This was an undisputed fact until 1968. Then an utterly unknown Swedish artist’s hidden work was released—a woman, not Kandinsky, was the first Abstract artist. Her name, Hilma af Klint, and just like that, the art world was turned on its head.
The immensity of the af Klint discovery is still being debated, its impact on-going, her diaries under translation, and further scholarly work anticipated.
For this post to go anywhere, it was obvious much more digging would have to happen. First, find out more about these complex artists, the who, what, where and when of each.
Who was Wassily Kandinsky?
Composition VII. Wassily Kandinsky, 1913. Public Domain. Via Wikipedia.
Kandinsky, a Russian, was born in Moscow to loving and financially secure parents of the merchant class. Despite his parents’ divorcing when he was young, he had a stable childhood. After the divorce, he went to live with his aunt and attended school. His mother later re-married and had three additional children, providing him both siblings and a second family.
Kandinsky showed artistic talent early: drawing, painting, and playing the cello and piano. But later in college, he pursued degrees in law and political science, becoming a career educator, lecturer and teacher. Abruptly at thirty years of age, Kandinsky left the academic world, seeking a career in art. His formal training was brief, however; he adopted the day’s avant-garde styles and joined non-conformist artists in establishing the Bauhaus Movement in Germany.
Prior to World War I, Kandinsky achieved some notoriety as an art teacher and lecturer. In 1911, he wrote his treatise titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art, that is still in use today. Groundbreaking at the time, his premise (generally) was that within each artist there was a spiritual need to create. Art, in turn, when viewed, fulfilled a spiritual need inherent within the viewer. Music, color, and the arts (drawing, performing, painting) created a synthesis akin to a spiritual experience.
Kandinsky’s writings are complex but made clearer when it was found that he had a condition known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition in which certain individuals upon hearing music, see colors and vice versa. With Kandinsky, the more intense the music, the more intense the coloration in his paintings.
Synesthesia also proved to be a key contributor in Kandinsky’s creation of a symbolic linear shorthand. Sixteen years after writing Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he published Point and Line to Plane, expanding his theory of lines, color, music, and composition, solidifying his theories.
Later, his most memorable paintings would be titled and numbered mimicking musical compositions. While historians have debated the point, they generally contend that the first Kandinsky abstract was his 1913 Composition VII. This work was, for the time, shockingly absent of any form and a total abstraction of color.
Hilma af Klint. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.
When the estate of Swedish artist Hilma af Kint released her hidden private collection in 1968, the art world was at a minimum shocked. Not only was Af Klint a woman, her work was entirely unknown.
Af Klint, believing that the world would not understand her life’s work, stipulated in her will that it was to remain hidden until twenty years after her death. When af Klint unexpectedly died in 1944, her nephew inherited the estate. He was surprised at the immensity of the find, and abided by the will’s terms, withholding the collection and finally releasing them in 1968.
With the release of the collection, it was discovered that af Klint had been creating abstracts a full six years before Kandinsky. Hilma af Klint, not Kandinsky, was the most likely choice to have been the first abstract painter – a dramatic revelation.
Who was Hilma af Klint?
Hilma af Klint was born the fourth child of five children, a daughter of a Swedish naval captain. Af Klint, like Kandinsky, displayed an early talent for both drawing and painting. Hilma was also adept in both mathematics and botany. From other accounts, she was known as a kind, serious, and intelligent person, devoted to her family and particularly to her visually impaired mother.
Eventually, Hilma’s talent was recognized and she was admitted to the Stockholm Academy of Fine Arts at twenty years of age. After graduation, af Klint was able to financially support herself producing landscapes, botanical subjects, and portraits. She became the primary caretaker of her mother and never married. Due to her mother’s condition, she was unable to travel or exhibit outside of Stockholm.
“Altarpieces, No. 1, Group X, 1907.” Hilma af Klint. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.
During the productive years of both Kandinsky and af Klint, Spiritualism was a widespread popular pursuit. After the death of her younger sister, af Klint became heavily involved and became a medium and member of a secret group of women named The Five. The Five met regularly to channel spiritual guides. Lengthy and detailed notes of instructions and messages received from the guides were written down in numerous notebooks and diaries.
It was during the seances that Hilma was instructed by her personal guide Amaliel, to create a group of paintings, reflecting the life stages of man from birth to death, later referred to as the Temple series. She completed the series in 1906, at 42 years of age. These works physically and mentally exhausted her. At one point, she attempted to share her work but was rebuffed gruffly by a critic and withdrew from painting for a period of time.
Comparing Lives – Kandinsky and Af Klint
After af Klint’s death, over one thousand spiritually directed works were discovered along with an undetermined number of diaries with sketches and notebooks. All of these works are now being studied and translated. Like af Klint, Kandinsky produced a large body of work; however, Kandinsky’s total output remains unknown. Many of his works were deemed degenerate and were destroyed under Hitler’s regime during WWII.
Both Kandinsky and af Klint believed in the Spiritual Movement sweeping Europe, and in separate and distinct ways, it directed their work. In his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky, speaks of the confluence of music, color, and art as a spiritual synthesis producing the highest form of art. Hilma af Klint painted the famous Temple series at the direction of her spiritual guide, Amaliel. Although the spiritual instructions came in widely different forms, each artist believed that outside forces were directing their work.
Hilma af_Klint, 1907. The key to the work up to this point. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Historians have confirmed that at least on one occasion, af Klint participated in an exhibit with Kandinsky. It is also been confirmed that her working studio was in the same building in which an Edvard Munch exhibit had taken place, also confirming she was a contemporary of Munch and Kandinsky. There is no proof at this time showing that Kandinsky and af Klint were introduced or aware of one another.
Other differences exist between the two artists. Kandinsky was born in 1866 and died at 78 years of age, relatively unknown and penniless in Paris; Hilma af Klint was born in 1862 and died at 82 years of age as the result of automobile accident in Sweden, she also was unknown and penniless. Kandinsky was born in Moscow, an only child, only much later gaining step-siblings through his mother’s second marriage. Af Klint, on the other hand, was born in Stockholm into a large family, the fourth child of five children. While af Klint never married nor had any children, Kandinsky married twice and had one child who tragically died at three years of age.
Kandinsky did not pursue an artistic career until 30 years of age, having very little formal training. Hilma af Klint began formal training at 20 years of age and graduated from a prestigious art program at 25. Both artists displayed talent when young, yet Kandinsky was a respected academic before coming to art late in his life. Both artists created paintings in the Absract style, but produced their works in totally different countries, far apart from one another. It also been confirmed that af Klint created her abstractions a full six years earlier than Kandinsky.
“Stars.” Wassily Kandinsky. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Geographical differences also exist between the two. Kandinsky moved frequently. He was first in Moscow then Munich, changing careers, pursuing art at thirty, finding some notoriety and acknowledgment. He was forced to flee into the German countryside, then went back to Russia because of WWI. After WWII, Wassily finally arrived in Paris, where he died penniless and unrecognized.
Af Klint, unlike Kandinsky, moved infrequently and always lived within Sweden. Born in Sweden, she grew up living on a naval base, went to school in Stockholm, and essentially never left Sweden her entire life. Hilma died at the age of 82, and, like Kandinsky, was isolated, penniless, and unknown.
Evolution, No. 13, Group VI, 1908. Hilma af Klint. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.
Both Kandinsky and af Klint were pioneers of Abstraction. Both left art legacies filled with mystical language, color, and symbols. While Kandinsky left a linear language of representational movement, af Klint left admirers an otherworldly language of symbols.
Kandinsky’s fascination with lines and color are readily apparent in his paintings, while, af Klint’s paintings reflect her proficiency in botany with many images similar to cellular or even floral reproductive or germination phases.
And in the end, the question Who was the first Abstract Artist? remains unanswered. We ask, Does it matter that we do not have an answer? The best response, probably not. The legacies of Kandinsky and af Klint is their art – and happily, we are the beneficiaries.
For Even More
“Hilma Af Klint.” – Lecture by Gertrud Sandqvist @ Summer Academy 2010.
“The First Abstract Painter Was a Woman.” by Nana Asfour. The Paris Review, October 12, 2018.
“Open Culture. Who Painted the First Abstract Painting?: Wassily Kandinsky? Hilma af Klint? Or Another Contender?” Open Culture, September 14, 2017.
“What Does Colour Sound Like? Kandinsky and Music.” Barnaby Martin August 19, 2019.
Stefan Scheider. “KANDINSKY – I spy with my little eye.”
“Hilma af Klint: A Painter Possessed.” The Observer, Sun. 21 Feb. 2016.
Jillian Steinhauer. “The Universe According to Hilma af Klint.” New Republic. March 11, 2019.
“Hilma af Klint.” Wikipedia..
Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky, is in the public domain and is thus available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.