SERPENTINE GALLERY: Painting the Unseen, Hilma af Klint

Painting the Unseen at the Serpentine Gallery is a unique exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s spiritual, abstract paintings – a stark contrast to her figurative and previously more public practice as a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Here af Klint was involved in several portrait and landscape exhibitions, but secretively she explored nature, science, the occult and the spiritual realms in paintings including those at the Serpentine.

Throughout Painting the Unseen Hilma af Klint’s work shows how far-ranging her exploration of automatic painting techniques was, and how her abstract style developed as her experience with the spiritual realm did too. Af Klint’s paintings exhibit geometric, precise characteristics and regularly incorporate sequences, repetition, spirals and simple juxtaposed forms, inspired by her involvement with the unseen worlds of spirits and the occult.

Using palettes of powerful primary colours and refined, simplistic shapes has resulted in a sophisticated exploration of the relationship between forms, patterns and pigments. Af Klint’s paintings appear to have been created with fluid applications of paint, which often varies from bold, block areas of solid colour to tentative, almost hesitant, smaller brushstrokes, which suggest a careful and thoughtful mark-making process.

In addition to af Klint’s devotion in the spiritual world, her paintings are influenced by nature. Although the content of these compositions is often ambiguous, they appear to represent stylised natural forms, accompanied by cursive annotations and examples of af Klint’s automatic writing and drawing, which she practiced as a member of The Five (Die Fem) after conducting private séances and experiments.

De Fem preceded the Surrealists by several decades, and produced work which rejected traditional representation, created as a response to personal interpretations and observations of the spiritual, natural and scientific worlds. Unconventionally, for Hilma af Klint’s larger pieces, she painted onto paper laid on her studio floor, and later pasted these onto stretched canvases. Diversely, her paintings range from measured explorations of geometry, line and colour, to gestural, natural marks which appear freer and more active in their movement and character.

Af Klint’s work explores opposing themes such as dark and light, male and female, positive and negative, and science and religion – these subjects signify the artist’s belief of the importance of polarity to humankind. Her non-representational paintings show how her personal introspection has inspired her visionary approach to systematic abstraction within her painterly practice.

Although Hilma af Klint’s practice is so unlike other artists of her time, it is only just beginning to reach public acclaim. This is largely due to the fact the artist wished her abstract paintings not to be exhibited for at least twenty years after her death. The Serpentine Gallery’s exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s innovative work has arguably proven that the timeline of abstraction is not as once was believed, and has revealed another dimension to the history of non-representational art.