Watercolor on paper, Feb. 15, 1932.
Credit...Hilma af Klint

Up Close

Hilma af Klint Knew Her Worth Before the World Did

A comprehensive, slipcased catalogue raisonné of the Swedish painter’s work revisits the techniques and themes that redrew the timeline of modern art in the West.

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An abstractionist before the official advent of abstraction, Hilma af Klint was a member of an all-female group called the Five from 1896 to 1907, participating in meditation and séances to channel the messages of mystics. In the studio, she harnessed this spiritual practice into unorthodox, nonfigurative paintings. Embracing elements of geometry, pattern and symbolism, the oeuvre collected in the slipcased, seven-volume career retrospective HILMA AF KLINT: Catalogue Raisonné (Bokförlaget Stolpe, $350) establishes what the editors Kurt Almqvist and Daniel Birnbaum call “a new visual language.”

ImageThe large-scale oil painting “No. 4,” 1907.
Credit...Hilma af Klint

Though recognized during her lifetime only for the more traditional work (portraits, botanicals, landscapes) that paid her bills, when she died in 1944, at 81, af Klint left behind detailed instructions as to how she wanted to be remembered.

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Credit...Hilma af Klint

This catalog is organized accordingly — not chronologically, but by series: first the drawings, then the most famous “Paintings for the Temple,” the “Blue Books,” “Parsifal and the Atom,” the geometric series, the late watercolors and, finally, the figurative works.

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Credit...Hilma af Klint
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Credit...Hilma af Klint
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Credit...Hilma af Klint

As her notebooks reveal, “she felt that the world was not quite ready for the message the pictures were meant to communicate.”

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Credit...Hilma af Klint

Generations later, the history of Western abstract art has been rewritten — with af Klint at the helm.

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Credit...Hilma af Klint

Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.