The Unfinished Reception of Hilma af Klint

IN 2020 THE GERMAN ART CRITIC Julia Voss published the first biography of Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), the Swedish originator of European abstraction. Titled Die Menschheit in Erstaunen versetzen, a difficult-to-translate phrase lifted from af Klint’s writing that I might tentatively render as To Astonish Humanity, Voss’s 571-page account is the result of more than a decade’s research that included teaching herself Swedish. A bestseller in Germany, it is written in Voss’s welcoming, patient, and sparing style. Voss spent countless hours in af Klint’s archive, making her way through tens of thousands of notebook pages and sketches, and the biography bears traces of its author’s long suspension in this mass of journals, papers, and illustrations. Her sentences possess a fascinating exploratory quality, continually pondering the possible meanings of af Klint’s remarkable oeuvre—a corpus of paintings and drawings produced “mediumistically,” sometimes via collaboration with a collective of female friends—which seems to have been at least a decade ahead of modernism elsewhere in Europe. It is likely that the runaway success of Die Menschheit in Erstaunen versetzen has much to do with Voss’s ability to clearly narrativize the archival documents in question, placing them in dialogue with finished artworks, even as she deftly guides the reader into open-ended reflection regarding the larger import of the traces af Klint left of her spiritually rigorous practice.

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To anyone who reads German, I recommend Voss’s biography, and there is now a translation for those inclined to English. It is common for reviewers of translated nonfiction to pass over the fact that the text has been transposed from one language to another, but this will not be that sort of review. The reason is that Anne Posten, Voss’s translator, has cut some 170 pages from Voss’s biography and removed the work’s title, among other alterations. In her introduction to Hilma af Klint: A Biography, Posten alerts the reader that since the publication of the German original, “more information about the artist’s life and work has come to light.” However, we never learn what the substance of this new information is, even as we are told that an overhaul of the original text has been necessary. For example, Posten has converted the entire text from the present tense—very pleasant in the German, I have to say—to the past, because, as she writes, present tense narration is “inappropriate in English. But this is hardly the most eyebrow-raising of Posten’s conclusions. The original book fails, in Posten’s assessment, to meet the “expectations for the first scholarly biography of a subject of art-historical significance.” Of Voss’s prose, Posten observes,

In order to write about a subject whose worldview and artistic process were heavily influenced by the spiritual and supernatural, and who left copious records of her own spiritual development and experiences but virtually none about her day-to-day life in the material world, the author chose a style and tone that are often more casual and novelistic than in other comparable works.

Because this style and tone deviate from what she considers “standard biographical style,” Posten has “attempted a more sober tone” while excising a third of Voss’s text and flagging what she considers unverifiable speculation.

A circle is drawn on light brown paper and divided into pie slices that are different subdued colors.
Hilma af Klint: 6 February 1908, dry pastel and graphite on paper, 12¼ inches square.

While this would be a harsh and possibly deal-breaking editorial response to any text, it is particularly strange to see this project undertaken by a translator, whose primary role is not to assess the work’s creative and scholarly merits. And given that Voss’s biography was widely praised, it seems counterproductive and frankly bizarre to reinvent it as some sort of scientific tome for a North American audience that is likely even more in need of accessible prose than readers in Germany.

Thus, it is a rather depressing task to review Hilma af Klint: A Biography. Its tone is indeed “sober.” While it provides basic facts about af Klint’s life, it is choppy and lacks the grace of Voss’s original. The best writing appears in later chapters, where some of the speculative mood has been retained. For example, given af Klint’s lifelong devotion to a mystical and highly personal form of Christianity that placed great value on revelation through communion with the beyond, we might wonder, did she think of herself as a saint? Probably not. Although she studied Catholic holy women and painted realistic portraits of nuns near the end of her life, she would have recognized that their stories ended “with the subject’s being silenced, locked in a cloister, and the narrative coopted by the church for its own purposes.” Voss (in Posten’s translation) dryly observes: “A useful lesson for Hilma, perhaps.”

At any rate, af Klint was privy to “a broader cosmos described by spirals, snails, swans, letters, and abstract figures,” animated by spirits with names like Ananda, Asket, Gregor, and Vestal. She was hardly a doctrinaire Christian. When we come to a notebook from the same period as af Klint’s studies of Christian visionaries, in which she recorded explanations of the notations in her abstract paintings—“A for ‘Akab,’ meaning ‘the search for the substance of love,’” for example—Voss seems to thrill at the alterity of af Klint’s methods and themes. These materials cannot be rendered entirely systematic, or parsed objectively. “The meaning multiplies like a flock of birds that scatter in every direction when one tries to approach,” Voss writes, in a simile not redacted by Posten despite its liveliness.

Black-and-white 19th-century image of a woman in a light blouse and long dark skirt seated at a table with artworks in the background.
Hilma af Klint in her studio at Hamngatan 5, Stockholm, 1895.

It is important that a biographer aid the reader in grasping the larger implications of an individual life. But it is a tricky matter to understand how young women who wanted more for themselves would have approached adulthood in turn-of-the-century Sweden, given that all social life was directed toward the project of marriage, and examples of women leading successful professional lives were exceedingly few. Art school was clearly a crucial resource for af Klint. And there was mediumship, something that came to af Klint via her painting studies: in a notebook she states that she had her first supernatural experience in fall of 1891, when a female artist named Valborg Hallström introduced her to a device called a “psychograph,” by means of which one might spell out messages from beyond. A transmission told af Klint to “go calmly” on her way through life. That this curt advice was enough to spark a lifelong commitment to transcribing fugitive words and images expressed by invisible beings gives some sense of the possible antagonism of visible, living people known to af Klint. But we can’t be sure. It is also likely that af Klint consummated passionate relationships with multiple women during her lifetime, though the evidence falls short of absolute proof here as well.

Reviewing af Klint’s archive, one becomes conscious of how its lacunae become points of focus, to the detriment of what was her unusual but nonetheless very probable experience. We know that af Klint and the women she associated with developed complex, esoteric linguistic and visual systems for understanding the world and for sharing thoughts and feelings with one another. Were these systems a form of coded communication, possibly regarding erotic and/or romantic entanglements? Again, this is uncertain. It is, however, clear that af Klint’s male contemporaries were far more able to speak freely in public, and to record their personal lives in private writings. Meanwhile, to know Hilma af Klint, we frequently have to guess.

Voss is therefore wise to set much of Die Menschheit in Erstaunen versetzen “in Possibility,” as Emily Dickinson wrote. Voss’s use of the present tense keeps the biography’s focus squarely in the moment of the book’s very composition. Voss constructs af Klint’s experiences in a sort of real time, allowing the reader to take into account the fact that some degree of speculation must necessarily accompany this enterprise. Saidiya Hartman has described the importance of “critical fabulation,” a kind of historical writing in which fictive or imaginative modes are selectively employed to bridge gaps of missing or irretrievable information, so that a narrative can form in spite of loss and erasure. Far from representing sloppy scholarship, Voss’s book carefully approaches a tricky archive and makes of it something rich and accessible. It tells a sort of history that has largely been excluded from the official record—one of queerness, of female domestic life in the absence of men, and of celebration of love as a form of magic. It cannot and should not make use of the techniques and standards associated with pre-feminist histories; an ambition to “scholarly” objectivity, so called, would make it a far worse book.

On a red background is a curving form in neutral tones that starts in the upper right corner and ends in the lower right corner.
Hilma af Klint: No. 9, 1915, oil on canvas, 58⅝ inches square.

The redaction of Voss’s innovative writing in the English version of af Klint’s biography would be disheartening in the context of any artist’s life history, but I think it is particularly so in the case of af Klint. Posten’s commentary about the unreliability of Voss’s account, along with her characterization of the artist as “a subject whose worldview and artistic process were heavily influenced by the spiritual and supernatural,” repeat terms long used to dismiss af Klint’s achievements. In a 1987 review of the exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hilton Kramer described the exhibition’s comparison of af Klint’s paintings to those of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and Kupka, all of whom also had works in the show, as “absurd,” given her beliefs and methods, concluding that she “would never have been given this inflated treatment if she had not been a woman.” Here, Kramer uses af Klint’s vulnerability to historical erasure against her, informing us that a male af Klint obviously would have been excluded from the LACMA show, because his work would have been given proper consideration in the past and presumably rejected, like that of any man of her limited talents, and saved us all a lot of time. This ridiculous and harmful logic is similar to one arguing that writing about af Klint cannot be included in her biography if it does not describe actual, provable events. On these terms, since we cannot prove many things about af Klint, and since she herself communicated with spirits whose existence cannot be proven, there is very little that can be written about her at all. We would need her to be a different sort of person—probably a man who did not believe in spirits—to write anything of “scholarly” value about her.

Still, it is hardly too late. Someone who clearly anticipated resistance during her lifetime, af Klint took steps to reproduce her work photographically and in miniature, creating a series of albums that might function as a “suitcase museum,” to use Voss’s phrase, so that she could personally communicate her undertakings to the spiritual leader Rudolf Steiner, whom af Klint sought, with very limited success, as a possible ally. These reproductions also have a more general preservative function, allowing us to see those works af Klint considered among her most important, along with their dimensions, titles, and intended orientation for display. The hopes of the painstaking suitcase museum are reflected in, and happily superseded by, the seven-volume catalogue raisonné now released in full by Bokförlaget Stolpe and the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit. The books in this series are finely bound, and gorgeously and exhaustively reproduce af Klint’s life’s work. While any biography is necessarily subjective and selective, the appearance of the catalogue raisonné will continue the process of sharing af Klint’s multifarious image-based mythology, and surely inspire new writing about her. We are clearly only at the beginning of Hilma af Klint’s reception. 

This article appears under the title “Medium Specificity” in the November 2022 print issue of Art in America, pp. 34-36.  


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