Review: Helsinki Festival’s Joyous Art

af Klint 2af Klint 1Taidehalli perukorjauksen jŠlkeen 2009

To step into the exhibition Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction at Kunsthalle Helsinki – without previous knowledge of her output – is nothing short of revelatory.

The exhibition, curated by Iris Müller-Westerman for Moderna Museet, first opened in Stockholm in early 2013 and has since toured to Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art, Spain’s Museo Picasso Málaga, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

While much has been written on her work, I haven’t read any of it. This made it possible to head into the exhibition with the mind harbouring few expectations. Seeing few reproductions also helps keeps the eyes fresh.

I found the colours and the way af Klint handled her media to be the most thrilling aspects of these paintings. The way the exhibition illustrates her move from producing mediocre landscapes and botanical studies to the much more high-spirited non-objective works is also extraordinary.

Among the high points are the luscious colours and energetic lines in the massive paintings making up the series ‘The Ten Largest, Group IV’ (1907). Here af Klint intertwines seed pod shapes, flowers and floral garlands, even a cluster of what might be brightly painted easter eggs, with spirals, letters and assorted curlicues to create a wild and somewhat cartoony garden just teeming with life.

The tenor of her work also takes dramatic shifts. Take notice of the sombre tones in the much more modestly scaled ‘Tree of Knowledge, The W Series’ (1913-15). Here we leave the abstract growth chamber and entered another amazing realm. These intricate musings, which have been intensified by the additions of select metallic highlights align themselves with the appearance of manuscript illuminations.

af Klint also successfully explores the world of opposites through various themes and types of imagery in ‘The Swan, Group IX/SUW, The SUW/UW Series’ (1915), and ‘The Parsifal Series’ (1916) includes a number of extremely exquisite minimalist works on paper, both of which clearly support the survey’s title.

Though the occasional composition does come across as being mawkish, programmatic or esoteric, these paintings fail to dampen the overall exuberance of the presentation.

A final laudatory remark concerns the exhibition’s venue. Unlike the overtly neutral (or sterile) character of the bright modern or modernised spaces in which this exhibition has already been exhibited, Kunsthalle Helsinki offers an complementary environment for its presentation. Completed  in 1928, it posits a certain correspondence with her work in terms of colour, ornamentation and spirit (the reason for the interspersed photos at the top of this entry) , as the building is almost contemporary with her work.

Though they were kept secret for so many decades, I can easily imagine her paintings being exhibited in this structure 80+ years ago. Better late than never I’d say…

Photos/credits (top to bottom):

Hilma af Klint: Swans, no. 17, gr0up IX/SUW, series SUW/UW, 1915. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Exterior, Kunsthalle Helsinki. Architects: Jarl Eklund & Hilding Ekelund, 1928. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger, 2009.

Hilma af Klint: Sjustjärnan, no. 2, group V, series WUS/Sjustärnan, 1908.

Interior detail, Kunsthalle Helsinki, est. 1928. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger.

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