January 11, 2018 1 Comment
Van Gogh for example, never actually sold a single painting. He exchanged his art for food and lodgings. But, he had no well-heeled patrons or galleries to give him support and an audience; instead, depending heavily on his loving brother Theo for subsistence and art materials. This lack of recognition incensed the vulnerable Vincent for most of his turbulent life.
So it is somewhat unusual that the very first recorded example of abstract art was deliberately kept secret, at the express wish of the artist, for 20 years after the artist’s death. What is even more unusual is that the artist was a woman. Her name was Hilma af Klint, and she was Swedish.
However, until the late 20th century, it was Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky who was credited and recognised as the Father of Abstract Art. Kandinsky was a highly gifted artist and intellectual with a keen interest in spirituality. And it was this obsession that drove him to move away from his early, yet recognised, figurative style to experiment with form and colour in a purely visceral exploration of otherness as defined by spirituality. He was heavily influenced by the writings of Madame Blavatsky; notably by her book, The Secret Doctrine, a somewhat enigmatic collection of bizarrely expressed ideas and opinions that only a student of the abstract might interpret. He also joined the burgeoning Theosophical Society. His intent was to capture the essence of spirituality in all its amorphous forms.
And, in that, he was successful enough. Along the way, he joined forces with other artists like Paul Klee and Franz Marc. On an invitation from Walter Gropius, he spent time at the ground breaking Bauhaus in Berlin.
Before his death in 1944, he was already acknowledged as the first abstract artist. In in some circles, he still is.
However, what Kandinsky never knew was that his pioneering art form was predated by the slightly older and reclusive Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint, who had been working in isolation on an island where no-one got to see her paintings.
Several years before Kandinsky experimented with shape, tone and colour in a purely abstract manner, af Klint had already built a collection of works that were totally abstracted and expressive.
The intriguing point about both artists is that they were oblivious to each other and their respective work, and yet they both embarked on their individual abstract journeys having been inspired by a desire to understand and express spiritualism.
Af Klint was deeply committed to spiritualism. With other female artists, she formed a small art moment called The Five. They met regularly; conducting séances before they painted.
It was at these séances that Hilma af Klint was ‘instructed by The High Master’ to embark on a collection of artworks that would adorn The Temple; a nonspecific entity which af Klint had no clear understanding or point of reference. However, despite the vagueness of the brief, she threw herself into it and completed the task. With this rather quixotic quest completed, she no longer sought spiritual guidance to do her work. She continued her exploration of abstract expression, living to the ripe old age of 80. Before her death, she instructed her heirs to lock her work away for a minimum of twenty years.
She and Kandinsky died within a couple of months of each other.
When Hilma’s work was eventually exhibited and assessed, at first, it was regarded with some caution. Maybe because, by all intents and purposes, she was a comparative unknown, even in Sweden. And, perhaps more likely, because she was a woman.
Regardless, of early uncertainty, with the discovery of copious, meticulously maintained diaries and notebooks, the provenance of her work was confirmed and her status as the first abstract expressionist was enshrined and documented into art history.
Observers are struck by her geometric shapes and use of powerful colours. The series for The Temple appear like open portals into that spiritual world she sought to find. Windows and doorway that invite the viewer to delve with all senses turned up to the maximum.
Of course, af Klint and Kandinsky were not the only artist to make the mark with an obscure brush stroke. Abstract expressionist art grew to penetrate and influence jazz and design.
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