The other day, I mentioned to a former tutor how I wanted to see the works of Hilma af Klint, the Swedish artist whose abstract works are being shown at the Serpentine Gallery. He asked me whether I thought there was a difference between art by male artists and that of female artists.
It was a reasonable question for this is the first time that a major exhibition of Klint’s abstract works have been on show to the public, as she decided not to exhibit them during her lifetime and stipulated in her will that they could not be exhibited for twenty years after her death. But my response was a knee-jerk ‘no’, a bit as though he had asked me whether male drivers were better than female drivers. Of course the right answer in both cases is, ‘ it all depends …’
Take Phyllida Barlow, her work has all the attributes that are commonly associated with male art; strong, large, impressive. Furthermore she often uses materials that might be found in a builder’s yard. Other artists such as Tracey Emin have built their practice around their role as a women whether it is by innovating with stereotypically female art- forms such as embroidery or by drawing on their own experiences; the famous bed and tent would have been very different in their impact if they had been made by a man.
As it turned out, I would have found it hard to believe that a male artist could have produced the majority of Klint’s paintings.
There is something about the choice of colours, the pinks and oranges, the recurring motives, the organic shapes and the flowers that seemed female. They were also exciting, bold, grand and remarkably fresh.
Even as I write that, I reflect that Damien Hirst has repeatedly used that feminine motif the butterfly, so appearances can be misleading, but I cannot imagine that a man would ever have been so reticent about exhibiting.
For my MA thesis which I completed last summer, I set out to discover why, despite being by far in the majority on art courses, women still fare less well than men in terms of gallery exposure, competitions and critical acclaim. It turned out to be complicated; and not all down to sexism, though that played a part. One factor appeared to be confidence; in fields where it could be measured, women tended to underestimate their abilities, men to overestimate .
So here she was, this little known Swedish woman, turning out these large beautiful works in 1908 in a style that was completely original, possibly making her rather than Kandinsky, or Mondrian the first pioneer in abstraction. Furthermore, in her investigation of pure minimalist form, she also pre-dated Malevitch. And she decided to keep it all to herself and a few female friends.
I left the exhibition wanting to go back in time and shake her and ask her what she thought she was doing. Women artists need role models; there were far too few in the early years of the last century. She could have been a major influence on the avant garde. She could have ben recognised as starting a new movement. It was not that she was afraid of exhibiting per se. She was known as a landscape artist and portrait painter. Her work in these genres appears competent but conventional,
It cannot really have been cherry blossom that excited her; such works were surely the day job. Perhaps it was the nature of her inspiration that she felt to be intensely private: she and her friends who called themselves the Five (de Fem) gathered in her studio in northern Stockholm to commune with group of mystic beings, which they called the High Masters.She believed they directly influenced her work
If I had known her I would have found this hocus pocus annoying despite the splendid results. I wonder whether there had been ridicule at any point which might have made her shy about exhibiting what she had done. But then maybe not; spiritualism was in vogue and many of the male contemporary artists including Kadinsky and Mondrian, were also interested in the occult.
She might have been concerned about possible criticism. In truth, they were not all good. There is a series, the Evolution Group, where the lettering tends to be crude and uneven and which includes a rather ridiculous pair of dogs, which have a certain charm but lack gravitas. But these are the exceptions: most of the works are skilled and appear superbly confident in their execution. It has been suggested that Klint was dismayed by the reaction of Rudolf Steiner, whom she greatly admired, but she had the self-belief to go on painting. Possibly she might have been concerned that the subject matter would have been considered unsuitable for a woman; much of the imagery appears sexual, revealing the influence of Freud.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be recognised; her writings suggested that her work might influence future generations and so it might. Apart from appreciating the form, the colour and the harmony, women artists should look on her works and encourage themselves to put themselves forward. It is hard for any artist to judge his or her own work; these paintings are a clarion call for women to be braver.
Hilma af Klint, Painting the Unseen, is showing at the Serpentine Gallery till Sunday May 15.