Hilma af Klint, Group IX/ SUW, The Swan, No. 17, 1915, from The SUW/UW Series (Serie SUW/ UW), oil on canvas Image Credit: Albin Dahlström-The Moderna Museet-The Hilma af Klint Foundation

The headline revelation emerging from Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum is that a Swedish woman, born in 1862, was making ravishing abstract paintings on an enormous scale several years ahead of the modern artists usually credited with inventing abstraction — men such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka.

This fact — news to many — forces a rewrite of art history. As such, it deserves all the emphasis it has been getting. But the show — perhaps the most mind-altering, historically significant event of the year in art — is more interesting than even its headline.

Klint made these paintings thinking she was taking instructions from a brotherhood of spiritual sages communicating telepathically from Tibet. So, a question arises: Does the image of Klint attending Stockholm seances with her four female friends (they called themselves the Five) and channelling invisible guides they called Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor dilute the significance of her achievement, or need it have no effect at all?

Look first at the paintings. Klint intended for them to cover the walls of a spiral-shaped temple that she believed those same sages, the High Masters, had urged her to build. It never was built. But it feels like more than compensation — something closer to fate — that they should enjoy their Manhattan debut in Frank Lloyd Wright’s great spiral-shaped museum.

The Ten Largest klint
Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood, 1907, from Untitled Series Albin Dahlström-The Moderna Museet-The Hilma af Klint Foundation

The most spectacular of Klint’s paintings comprise a suite representing the human life cycle. The Ten Largest, as she called them, were painted in tempera on paper in 1907 (the same year Picasso painted his breakthrough masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). They’re huge. Each one measures about 80 square feet. A week after I saw them, their pulsing loveliness remains undimmed in my mind, like a self-replenishing sense memory of summer.

Against fields of powdery blue, drenching orange and ethereal lilac, Klint set circular or spiral-shaped motifs, looping letters and diagrammatic signs in an array of harmonious yellows, greens, whites and blacks. Crucial to the paintings’ success is their relaxed, asymmetrical design. Reminiscent of improvised Swedish folk or central Asian textiles, it convinces the viewer they are the product of immediate, dopamine-driven intuition, not stale, ordering intellect.

Klint produced her temple paintings in a productive gush over nine years. During that time, she made more than 193 paintings and works on paper in two phases, the first between 1906 and 1908, and the second between 1912 and 1915. The four years in between she spent caring for her mother, who had suddenly gone blind. (One looks in vain for an equivalent hole in the resumes of Kandinsky, Picasso or Jackson Pollock).

After 1915, Klint continued to make art, much of it compelling. But none of it possesses the joyous, unbridled force of the temple paintings. The later work is almost unrelievedly symmetrical. It is as though Klint spent the rest of her life trying to square her early visionary clarity with life’s ensuing perplexities.

Isn’t that so often the fate of true innovators? The intensity is unsustainable. The limb they are out on eventually snaps. Too busy trying to make sense of the achievement, we fail to contemplate what the aftermath must have been like. Klint, who died after a tram accident in 1944, was so beguiled by what she had done that she insisted her paintings remain hidden until 20 years after her death. In actuality, it was more than 40 before the work began to resurface.

Hilma af Klint in Stockholm Image Credit: Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm

Even then, news of her genius has spread slowly. Klint was all but unknown until 1986, when her paintings appeared in a groundbreaking exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her work has since enjoyed intermittent outings, including at the P.S. 1 Museum in Queens in 1989. She was the subject of a major retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 2013. This Guggenheim show was organised by Tracey Bashkoff, the museum’s director of collections and senior curator, with David Horowitz, a curatorial assistant.

Klint’s spiritual convictions were by no means out of step with the times. Spiritualism was part of the intellectual climate in Europe at the turn of the century and attempts to communicate with higher levels of consciousness were common. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupka and Malevich were all influenced to some degree by an interest in the occult, and by theosophy in particular.

Established in New York by the Russian emigre Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy was a fast-spreading spiritualist movement that sought to reconcile Eastern philosophy and religion with its Western counterparts. Addressing itself to Darwin’s theory of evolution, to the invisible forces (X-rays, atomic particles, radio waves) recently uncovered by science and to a growing awareness of relativism in religion, it sought to lend stability to the era’s dizzying intellectual flux. Much of the order it posited seems ridiculous in retrospect. But many great minds were drawn to it.

Klint participated in her first seances in 1879, at age 17. Her sister died the next year. She enrolled to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the 1880s soon after the school began admitting women. After graduating with honors, she pursued an active public career, accepting portrait commissions, exhibiting landscapes, making exquisite scientific illustrations and joining the board of the Association of Swedish Women Artists, even as her heart’s desire was secretly blossoming into the 20th century’s first and most splendid abstract paintings.

When the Theosophical Society opened its Swedish lodge in 1889, Klint immediately joined. Seven years later, she and the rest of the Five began participating in seances and communicating with the High Masters in Tibet. They practiced automatic drawing — a form of channelling the unconscious, or unseen spirits, later practiced by the surrealists and their progeny, including Pollock.

Fearing madness, the other members of the Five pulled back from acting as mediums. So, in 1903, Klint took over as the group’s conduit to the High Masters, two of whom (Georg and Ananda, if you’re wondering) urged her to build a temple the next year.

A century on, what are we to make of a story that attributes groundbreaking artistic innovation to sances, telepathy and spiritualist hokum?

Altarpiece klint
Hilma af Klint, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915, from Altarpieces (Altarbilder) Albin Dahlström-The Moderna Museet-The Hilma af Klint Foundation

I think a bit of imagination is in order. First, we might ask: What was it like being an intelligent, middle-class young woman in Sweden at the turn of the last century? What was it like, in the wake of the death of a sister, arriving at a passionate belief — deriving not from ignorance but from education in science, art and comparative religion — in the existence of worlds beyond the observable one? And what was it like as a woman facing near-constant condescension and exclusion, possibly even fear of madness?

In what sanctuary, given these conditions, might you seek consolation, meaning and stimulus? In four female friends, perhaps, and a regular routine of meditative gatherings, and a spiritual system established by a woman.

In 1914, months before the outbreak of a war so catastrophic it would spark a civilisational and spiritual crisis, Klint exhibited some of her conventional, naturalistic paintings in the Baltic Exhibition in Malm, Sweden. In the same exhibition, Kandinsky exhibited the abstract works that were already revolutionising modern art.

What must it have felt like, at that moment, to be Hilma af Klint? Her temple paintings, made several years before Kandinsky’s first abstractions, languished unseen in her studio.

But perhaps she didn’t care. She may have been more interested in her own spiritual progress than in claiming her rightful place in the history of modern art.

Copy of art-klint-2a210958-de08-11e8-b732-3c72cbf131f2
Hilma af Klint, “Group V, The Seven-Pointed Star, No. 1n,” 1908, from “The WUS/Seven-Pointed Star Series” Image Credit: The Moderna Museet-The Hilma af

I, too, find myself drawn to the spiritual question when contemplating Klint’s achievement. What force was pulsing through her when she painted these pictures? And was it really coming from Tibet?

Personally, I suspect not. But then, I remember that when Peter Matthiessen wrote The Snow Leopard, his celebrated account of a spiritual journey in the Himalayas, he began it with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke that bears directly on this bafflingly beautiful show: “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions’, the whole so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out by life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.”

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future runs through April 23 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York