Understanding the origins of artistic genres is tricky. When is the first pure European landscape painting? To answer that question, we might need to exclude the landscapes appearing behind narrative pictures presenting New Testament stories. When is the first still life? To resolve that debate it may be necessary to look beyond Renaissance storytelling scenes in which still life objects are present in the foreground. The creation of a novel artistic form does not merely depend on the development of artistic skill. Piero della Francesca painted landscapes within his narratives — and Raphael showed still life objects within his. But they didn’t make landscape or still life paintings. What matters is when artists created autonomous art form.
Identifying the first abstract painting is also tricky. A great deal of pre-Modern decoration now looks abstract. But if abstraction in painting is identified by the rejection of figuration as artistic goal, then such designs are not really abstractions, even if they look like abstract paintings. An abstract work of art, it would seem has to be made intentionally. Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was a Swedish artist who, starting in 1906 and inspired by the theosophical writings of Rudolf Steiner, made many large non-figurative images. She also produced conventional landscapes and portraits, exhibiting as a professional artist. Her will stipulated that her abstract works should not be seen in public for at least 20 years after her death, because she felt that the world was not ready for her spiritual message. Her abstractions were displayed in the group exhibition “On The Spiritual in Art” in 1986 in Los Angeles, and, more recently, in 2005 in the exhibition of three women at the Drawing Center in New York. They were shown in a recent large-scale solo exhibition, “Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction,” which toured in Sweden, Germany and Denmark. This book complements that show, documenting an eponymous symposium. The images are fascinating: biomorphic forms or geometric diagrams connected by curving lines and accompanied by words float on pale-colored backgrounds. Whereas it’s easy to see that Vassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian’s more-familiar early abstractions are derived from landscapes, it’s not obvious how to interpret these pictures. Steiner is a not a theorist usually read by present day art critics, but his writings, and those of other theosophical figures, were a major influence on early Modernism.
The 19 essays in this book, all clear and all interesting, cover some topics: the early abstractions of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian; J. W. Goethe’s color theory; and the story of Rudolf Steiner’s visual ideas, which are only tangentially related to the theme at hand. And while there are 42 good color plates showing her art (along with many black and white plates, some duplicating those presented in color), we’re not given dimensions of these works, nor information about their location. The real trouble, however, is that the personality of af Klint doesn’t come into focus. Some commentators treat his images as works of art — others disagree. While I can understand the desire of the publisher to present diverse points of view, this presentation, with frequent repetitions of basic information, is simply confusing. It’s not clear how she wanted her images to be understood. Some of the writers call them works of art, while others disagree. She wrote extensively, but most of her notebooks have not yet been studied. Neither are we given a full account of the Swedish art world of her time. And so it is still hard to evaluate these images on her terms. These images have some claim to be the first abstractions, pioneering works by a previously marginalized woman artist. But if they are really diagrams — large, colored versions of the pictures found in spiritualist books — then maybe they are not meant to works of art at all. If in fact the surviving documentation is unlikely to answer these questions, then why not say so in as many words?
Ultimately, of course, these complaints are beside the point: now that her works are well known, we may reasonably hope that they will attract more scholarly attention, as they deserve. In the catalogue for the 2013 Venice Biennale, in which af Klint’s art was presented, Massimiliano Gioni, who was the exhibition’s director, offers an interesting perspective. His show, he writes,
Blurs the line between professional artists and amateurs, insiders and outsiders, reuniting artworks with other forms of figurative expression—both to release art from the prison of its supposed autonomy, and to remind us of its capacity to express a vision of the world.
Perhaps, then, to understand af Klint we need to avoid a rigid distinction between spiritualist diagrams and abstract painting. After all, Renaissance altarpieces, which originally served sacred functions, nowadays are treated as works of art and so placed in museums.
 Gioni, Massimiliano. “Is Everything in My Mind?” Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2013), vol. 1, 23.
Almqvist, Kurt and Louise Belfrage, eds. Hilma af Klint: The Art of Seeing the Invisible. (Stockholm, SE: Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2015). ISBN-13: 978-0989890212, 348 pages, $46.50print