No, I didn’t mean to type Klimt…

Who was the first abstract painter in the western tradition? Some people will argue for Mondrian or Malevich or Kupka, but most people give the title to Kandinsky, who reached this milestone with a composition just before WWI. But there is an unarguable earlier claimant, a Swedish woman named Hilma af Klint.

She was producing what are unquestionably abstract paintings years before any of the usual names, starting from 1906-07, and she continued to do so (the one pictured here is from 1907). They’re fine paintings too, reminding me at times of later work by Kandinsky (his Paris biomorphic period) and Klee (his post-North Africa and Bauhaus work), and she even produced paintings rather like Jasper Johns’ targets of decades later.

So why is this major innovator almost completely unknown? I’d bet that even many of the educated art fans here are unfamiliar with her. I have a book, The Spiritual In Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (lots of theosophy, a bizarre major influence on Kandinsky and Mondrian, as well as af Klint), produced to go with an exhibition that started in LA in 1986, which claims to include the first ever article about her in English – and the show was the first time her work had been shown outside her native Sweden. This is partly because on her death in 1944 she willed that her works were kept together and not shown publicly for 20 years – she hoped there would be a more receptive public by then. Another 40 years have passed, and she is still unknown, and I am mystified as to why. Admittedly she was way out of the main stream of modern art that centred on Paris, and I’ve seen no evidence that she influenced any of the usually cited pioneers of abstract painting, but even so a unique and extraordinary figure like this surely deserves far wider attention. Even in 2004 I’m inclined to doubt that a man with such achievements would remain as obscure…

The Brown Wedge