Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings - 'Once-in-a-lifetime' art exhibition opens in Wellington

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings - 'Once-in-a-lifetime' art exhibition opens in Wellington

A once-in-a-lifetime exhibition opening in Wellington this weekend promises to resonate with all audiences, featuring works that recently burst on to the art scene following years of secrecy.

Made up of 128 pieces that “drip content and meaning”, Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings opens at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi on Saturday, in association with the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts.

The works of Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint have revolutionised art history for their groundbreaking exploration of spiritualism and science, expressed through an abstract form that had not yet been seen.

Following three years of planning and procurement during a global pandemic – including three date changes – senior curator Aaron Lister said it was an “incredible feeling” to finally share her with Aotearoa.

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings - 'Once-in-a-lifetime' art exhibition opens in Wellington

Photo / Celeste Fontein

“This exhibition of the work of Hilma af Klint was made over a century ago, it was hidden away from the world for twenty years,” he said.

“It’s only recently been brought back into the consciousness where everyone can see it for the first time.”

Although emerging in public galleries from the 1980s, the art did not become a global phenomenon until the exhibition broke records at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2019, attracting 600,000 visitors.

“We’re very much a part of the first generation of galleries,” Lister said.

“It’s the first time this work has made its way to the Asia Pacific region, and the first time that audiences from this part of the world have had the opportunity to see it on our turf.”

Born in 1862, Hilma af Klint is now regarded one of Europe’s earliest abstract artists – a feat only discovered posthumously, when her secret works were discovered.

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings - 'Once-in-a-lifetime' art exhibition opens in Wellington

Photo / Celeste Fontein

Creating art at the turn of the century in an era dominated by male artists, af Klint worked mostly in isolation throughout her life.

She left instructions for her works to remain secret until 20 years after her death, deciding the world was not yet ready for her revolutionary abstract language and spiritual themes.

Lister said af Klint’s works were never seen in the time and place they were created, but felt groundbreaking even now.

“Her bigger project was to make art that could shift humanity and can move us into a better future and a more prosperous future,” he said.

“She was working in the context of in between two wars, the world was falling apart, and she believed that art and spiritualism and belief could actually move them somewhere else – that’s revolutionary and radical at any time.”

The rediscovery of af Klint’s work has re-written art history, as her abstract style pre-dated the male contemporaries once considered “the fathers of abstract art”.

The exhibition centres around af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple cycle, created in secret between 1906 and 1915, inspired by “the great commission” she received from her “High Masters”.

A monumental series of paintings The Ten Largest (1907) – each three metres tall – are the centrepiece of the exhibition, an abstract creation of the four stages of human life.

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings - 'Once-in-a-lifetime' art exhibition opens in Wellington

Photo / Celeste Fontein

Af Klint’s notebooks, in which she outlined her ideas and process, will also be on display – those inscribed ‘+x’ indicate the material she wanted to be kept secret.

Guided by messages she received from high powers, af Klint used the spiritualist and scientific techniques of her age – such as X-rays – to understand and represent the world.

Af Klint’s style and subject matter was well ahead of its time, as she pushed against binaries in an effort to reach a “complete one-ness”.

“It’s this combination of spiritualism and science – in her context that was not that unusual, but to pull that through into modern art-making was incredibly groundbreaking,” Lister said.

“All her work was channelled by higher powers who told her and gave her images of what to make, and these were things that had never been seen before.”

In a time of global crisis not dissimilar to af Klint’s own historical context, Lister said her work would be particular pertinent to audiences today.

“She envisaged this future audience for her work and on one hand, maybe we can say we’re the audience who she was thinking about, but also the work isn’t done,” he said.

“The same issue she was dealing with, they’re still the same issues we’re dealing with.

“Her work to me actually carries a challenge to us, that like her, we need to envisage that better future.”

With Aucklanders soon allowed to travel the country over Christmas, Lister said he couldn’t wait to share The Secret Paintings with New Zealand.

“I’ve stood in front of crowds of hundreds of people looking at these works and I know the collective buzz and the collective energy you get from standing on front of it.

“I’m really excited to see that happen.”

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings opens at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi on Saturday December 4, and will show until March 27 2022.

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