If You Like Wassily Kandinsky, You'll Love Hilma af Klint

The early Twentieth Century saw an explosion of abstract art, but which artist was first?

By Google Arts & Culture

Kleine Welten IV (1922) by Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian artist and theorist whose work ushered in a new abstract aesthetic in the early 20th Century. Born in Moscow in 1866, he spent a childhood in Odessa, before moving to Munich, working at the Bauhaus, and later settling in France.

His early artistic work was made in the wake of the Post-Impressionists, and drew heavily on The Fauves. Over the 1910s his work became increasingly free-form and expressive of inner, rather than outer life.

By the 1920s, he was creating purely abstract images, in which he felt music, art, and movement coalesced, "the sun melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating."

Dove No. 2 (1915) by Hilma af KlintOlomouc Museum of Art

Around the same time, Hilma af Klint was creating her own geometric images. Af Klint was the daughter of a Swedish naval commander, and between 1882-87 studied portraiture and still life at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm.

The death of her sister in 1879 had prompted af Klint to look into 'Spiritism', as well as Theosophy and the occult. She met a group of like-minded women at the Royal Academy, and they founded 'The Five' and regularly held séances and sessions of 'automatic art'.

As af Klint wrote: "The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke."

Kleine Welten IV (1922) by Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Ever since Kandinsky's death in 1944, people have debated who invented abstract art. Many artists of the early twentieth century were found to have backdated their works to make their own claims. Kandinsky boldly claimed that it was he alone…

He wrote to a gallerist in 1935 that, "it's the world's first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style. A 'historic painting', in other words."

Dove No. 2 (1915) by Hilma af KlintOlomouc Museum of Art

However, some art historians have claimed that Hilma af Klint was first. From 1906 she started making works that appear to be without reference to real objects in the world. This would predate other artists' works, including Kandinsky's.

Dove No. 2 was painted in 1915, and despite its name, it does appear to be an abstract work. It's constructed with mathematical precision, made of curving lines and color fields, without concern for perspective, illusion, or representation.

Not all are convinced… some art historians have argued that as Af Klint never intended these images to be exhibited or outlined an aesthetic theory, they couldn't be called art.

Meanwhile others have questioned the individual nature of invention, pointing out that art is a social activity, and that cultural development is the result of groups of people adopting new ways of being.

Would af Klint have created these works without the writings of Spiritists? Would we appreciate these works as art without the institutional acceptance of abstract art via Kandinsky? And what about the abstract artwork of cultures outside of Europe and North America?

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