The voices in her head told Hilma af Klint she would be a great artist. They weren’t wrong. Born in 1862, she was unusual from an early age. Growing up in austere Lutheran Sweden, Af Klint studied art at university: a rare feat for a woman. Even less common was her insistence on practising as a professional after graduation. In the face of a society – and an art world – riddled with extreme misogyny, a quiet, conventional career in portraiture seemed the best she could hope for. But then, as Julia Voss reveals in her new biography, Af Klint started to receive messages from another world – and her life in this one was irrevocably altered.
In 1906, she began the construction of an extraordinary series of 1,200 paintings, which she continued until her death in 1944. Reproduced in colour in Voss’s book, the work is still novel, a century or so on. Which wouldn’t have surprised Af Klint. Her visions told her that she was making art for people of the future.
Af Klint’s paintings will be exhibited at Tate Modern next April, but it’s taken a long time for the art world to catch up with the visionary Swede. Voss’s biography, published in Germany in 2020, and only now translated into English, is the first of its kind. An award-winning art historian and former art editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Voss taught herself Swedish to decipher Af Klint’s huge archive of notes and decode her mysterious life story.
Voss suggests Af Klint was a pioneer of abstract painting, a label that fits in some ways – her work certainly isn’t representational in the normal sense – but jars in others. She saw her work as a spiritual calling, supercharged with meaning in ways most of her contemporaries struggled to grasp. Most, but not all. Af Klint socialised and collaborated with other visionary women.
Some were artists, others were writers, but all were adherents of the new philosophies sweeping Europe in the late 19th century: spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, theosophy. Mixing psychology, Christianity and Buddhism, historical fantasy and science fiction, “new age” ideals were amazingly popular, particularly among educated women, who used those ideologies to carve themselves new social niches outside the suffocating strictures of church and family.
It was in these new communities that Af Klint first spoke with the dead. Under the direction of experienced mediums, then directly, she received missives from higher planes at a staggering rate, delivered by a menagerie of go-betweens: Ananda, Amaliel, Georg. Her visions, speaking of secret pasts and a luminous, egalitarian future, drew others to her. And in this underground of dreamers and outcasts Af Klint found friends, allies and lovers. Like everything else in her life, the artist’s relationships with women were secretive, intense and suffused with supernatural meaning.
Conceiving of herself as a mix of two spirits - male Asket and female Vestal - Af Klint “experienced her sexual encounters with friends”, Voss writes, “from a place beyond clear gender relationships”. Elsewhere, though, she floundered; she was sidelined by male artists and struggled for exhibition space, living in near total anonymity. But Af Klint was buoyed by her own self-belief. Her life, like her art, was bold, colourful, self-contained.
Voss succeeds in making a deeply private life public and readable. And she surmounts a greater challenge still: making experiences barely contained on canvas legible on the page. The resulting feat of detective work pieces together life and art, visions and the visionary; the person Af Klint was and the friendships that shaped and strengthened her.
Voss respects her subject deeply, sometimes to a fault. Her reluctance to discuss Af Klint’s sexuality takes scholarly caution to extremes. But the same discretion pays dividends when discussing the artist’s dreams. She resists the temptation to instrumentalise Af Klint’s mysticism. The woman who emerges in Voss’s exacting portrait is strong-willed, purposeful and confident; ahead of her time and perhaps ours too.
What’s interesting, the author suggests, isn’t that Af Klint, in a century awash with spiritual fads, heard voices. It’s that, as far as her genius was concerned, those voices weren’t wrong.
• Hilma af Klint: A Biography by Julia Voss (translated by Anne Posten) is published by University of Chicago Press (£28). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply