Strange things were stirring in Sweden in the years around 1905 when the artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) received a message from a divine entity to begin creating an epic series of semi-abstract works called The Paintings for the Temple, parts of which are now on show in London’s Serpentine Gallery (until 15 May).
Af Klint had spent the previous decades immersed in spiritualism, attending séances along with four female artists who called themselves De Fem (the five). Together they communed with mystic beings named the High Masters. Meanwhile, she had made a name for herself as an accomplished if conventional artist of portraits, landscapes and botanical drawings.
Now regarded as a pioneer of abstraction, albeit an idiosyncratic one, she trod an isolated path. Her strange, colourful works were unseen in public during her life and for more than 40 years after her death. When she died in 1944, aged 81, she stipulated that her more than 1,200 paintings should not be displayed for at least 20 years.
Eight works from Af Klint’s series The Ten Largest (1907), which are monumental compositions featuring cell-like forms, seeds and stamens, turn the Serpentine’s largest gallery into a space resembling a temple of a secret sect. Nearby hang Altarpieces (1915), a series created as the culmination of The Paintings of the Temple. She even designed a spiral-shaped building to house them.
Co-organsied by the Serpentine Galleries in collaboration with Daniel Birnbaum, the director of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen, is supported by la Rinascente. The exhibition includes recently restored works and pages from her thousands of notes, many lent by the Hilma af Klint Foundation.