Hilma af Klint: A Biography (Hardcover)
A highly anticipated biography of the enigmatic and popular Swedish painter.
The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was forty-four years old when she broke with the academic tradition in which she had been trained to produce a body of radical, abstract works the likes of which had never been seen before. Today, it is widely accepted that af Klint was one of the earliest abstract academic painters in Europe.
But this is only part of her story. Not only was she a working female artist, she was also an avowed clairvoyant and mystic. Like many of the artists at the turn of the twentieth century who developed some version of abstract painting, af Klint studied Theosophy, which holds that science, art, and religion are all reflections of an underlying life-form that can be harnessed through meditation, study, and experimentation. Well before Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich declared themselves the inventors of abstraction, af Klint was working in a nonrepresentational mode, producing a powerful visual language that continues to speak to audiences today. The exhibition of her work in 2018 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City attracted more than 600,000 visitors, making it the most-attended show in the history of the institution.
Despite her enormous popularity, there has not yet been a biography of af Klint—until now. Inspired by her first encounter with the artist’s work in 2008, Julia Voss set out to learn Swedish and research af Klint’s life—not only who the artist was but what drove and inspired her. The result is a fascinating biography of an artist who is as great as she is enigmatic.
About the Author
Julia Voss is a German art historian, art critic, and former art editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Anne Posten is a literary translator based in Berlin.
“Despite her many notebooks, she left behind no personal diaries, and we know little about her thoughts beyond her art and spiritualist interests. Voss does a good job of filling in the gaps with detective work and speculation, although in places the conditional does a lot of heavy lifting. Her biggest achievement is to establish a context for af Klint’s work, upending popular assumptions that she was a mystical outsider who floated free of her historical and social milieu.”
— London Review of Books
“Voss has produced an extraordinarily rich portrait of a radically unusual, but not eccentric, modern artist. . . . Voss’s biography makes af Klint so much more than an artist simply to be inserted into a more gender-inclusive canon of ‘abstract art’. It saves af Klint from art history while sending us deeper into her world. Reading it was a revelation, and it has changed my understanding of the artist, the woman, and her times.”
— Literary Review
"It would be easy, in our rationalist times, to think of af Klint as a kook. One of the many praiseworthy things about Julia Voss’s excellent new biography of her is that it does not even entertain the thought."
— Times Literary Supplement
"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."
— Observer (UK)
"Julia Voss’s biography of Af Klint is the first full life of the painter and shows her growth from working in the traditional genres of portraiture and landscape into far more radical fields. She explains not just Af Klint’s beliefs, but her relations with the occultist and reformer Rudolf Steiner and her efforts to exhibit some of her work to fellow spiritualists. Af Klint thought of her paintings as dictations from the astral plane. Voss’s scholarship shows how remarkable the woman was who transcribed them."
— New Statesman
"[A] pioneering biography. . . . Voss marshals as much of the personal detail as the painter’s surviving notes would divulge and has filled out an account that will surely remain the standard for years to come."
— Art Newspaper
"Julia Voss’s dazzling and timely biography of Hilma af Klint explores not only the life of this extraordinary artist but highlights the important contributions of both mysticism and women artists—so long excluded from the art-historical canon—to the story of modern art. I couldn’t put it down."
— Jennifer Higgie
"Julia Voss’s biography is the indispensable resource for anyone interested in pioneering artist Hilma af Klint. With her thousands of pages of notebooks in Swedish, af Klint remained beyond the reach of scholars without the ability to read Swedish. By mastering Swedish and doing superb archival research on af Klint and the women around her, Voss reveals a Hilma we did not know, including a gender fluidity that underlies many of her motifs. Voss has also recovered the cosmopolitan culture of Stockholm in this period—from art exhibitions and science expositions to the robust interest in spiritualism that parallels that in Berlin. Written in lively prose, Voss’s book is a pleasure to read in the translation by Anne Posten."
— Linda Henderson, University of Texas at Austin
"A fascinating book on the exhilarating life and work of Hilma af Klint. Julia Voss has been instrumental in bringing her story to the forefront and tells her life with such sensitivity, generosity, and insight. A must read!"
— Katy Hessel, author of The Story of Art without Men
"As well as shining a light on an exceptional talent, this book provides a rare window on the struggle of a woman artist to find a new language in a world where idealism was fading fast."
— World of Interiors
"A rich and illuminating portrait of the artist."
— Air Mail