A set of watercolours by the Swedish female artist, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), whose paintings are considered to be the first Abstract works in Western art history, are going to be exhibited by David Zwirner next month.
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist and mystic who, after studying at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, produced paintings that were representations of her complex spiritual ideas. Whilst artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) are often credited as being the pioneers of Abstract art, in fact, af Klint was creating purely abstract works considerably earlier. Art critic Roberta Smith has suggested that, “her paintings definitively explode the notion of modernist abstract as a male project.” Af Klint’s importance as an artist went unrecognised for many years, but an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018 restored her to her rightful position in the history of art and essentially credited her as being the inventor of abstraction. The exhibition sparked more interest in the artist, and in 2020 a documentary film was released about her. It has also recently been announced that Lily Cole will play the part of Hilma in an upcoming film on the artist.
A substantial body of the artist’s work is held by the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm. The eight watercolours which are going to be exhibited by David Zwirner are titled Tree of Knowledge (1913-1915) and the Hilma af Klint Foundation also own a copy of this series, as it transpires she made two versions. The present set was given by af Klint to the Spiritualist Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society. They were then inherited by next president of the society, Swiss writer Albert Steffen. According to a statement released by David Zwirner, the group were only recently rediscovered in Switzerland. The series incorporate a vivid range of influences and feature Art Nouveau motifs, religious themes and glittering pyramid formations with gold and silver highlights. Scholar Åke Fant wrote in a 1989 book on the artist that this series all include a circle surrounding a tree trunk, and that, “all eight paintings […] feature variations on this theme. We are dealing with a process, here, that goes from innocence and balance to a complex bifurcation into male and female, to the Fall from Grace and the conception of a child.” These works certainly demonstrate af Klint’s trailblazing ideas in the visual arts.
David Zwirner told Artnet News that, “I am thrilled to be exhibiting ‘Tree of Knowledge’ by Hilma af Klint, which has such a fascinating history. This is the only major work that exists outside of the foundation’s collection,” and that, “the fact that she personally gave this set of watercolours to Rudolf Steiner, whose philosophical beliefs deeply influenced her, is remarkable.” The works will be on display at David Zwirner’s New York gallery from 3 November, and they will be offered for sale only to institutional buyers.