After the Sudden Heralding of Hilma af Klint, Questions and Court Fights

Her bold, colorful canvases in a Guggenheim Museum show rocked the art world in 2018 — and filled a canyon in the popular imagination: Hilma af Klint, a largely unknown Swedish artist and mystic was discovered as an important pioneer of abstract painting.

Scholars mentioned her name in the same breath as Kandinsky and Mondrian — a woman stepping toward Modernism before most of her male contemporaries. And af Klint, who died in 1944, became a fixture of museum gift shops, movie theaters and college dormitory posters.

But with af Klint’s meteoric celebrity has come deeper scrutiny of her works and concerns over who should protect her legacy. Historians have questioned whether she is actually the sole author of many works attributed to her, and in recent months another artist has surfaced as the likely hand behind 15 paintings at the center of the Guggenheim’s triumphal show. Several scholars have suggested that other pictures may have been painted by members of a spiritualist collective, working with af Klint toward a common goal.

Even as the impact of these discoveries is defined and debated, the people charged with protecting her legacy are at odds. Three lawsuits in Swedish courts have challenged who should control a foundation created in af Klint’s name that oversees the fate of nearly 1,300 paintings, and have raised questions about whether some of the caretakers are seeking to profit from her newfound fame. The infighting and court battles have delayed plans for a permanent home to preserve the artist’s creations, and could imperil museum loans as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing deals.

Unlocking Authenticity

Before she became an abstractionist, af Klint spent her early years as a classically trained painter who graduated with honors from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1887. She supported herself by selling portraits and landscapes, participating in exhibitions across Europe. But dual interests in the scientific discoveries of her time and the mysteries of the spiritual world drove her toward the occult.

Af Klint formed a group called the Five, holding séances with its four other female members. The Five made automatic drawings together, keeping notebooks and attempting to communicate with other worlds. Rituals led them to attempt to commune with spirits they called High Masters, who influenced them to produce a temple filled with paintings.

Historians once believed that only af Klint answered the call. But several scholars now say that Anna Cassel, another artist from the Five, was responsible for 14 paintings from a 1906-7 series called “Primordial Chaos” that were displayed at af Klint’s show at the Guggenheim, as well as one painting from the 1907 “Eros” series. Additional works in the foundation’s collection, the scholars say, are likely to have been created by other members of the collective.

Questions of authorship arose this year when the art historian Susan Aberth wrote an essay in Artforum magazine that called the discovery of Cassel’s contributions “an astonishing revelation of a heretofore unknown artist.”

She cited research by Hedvig Martin, a history Ph.D. in Amsterdam specializing in af Klint. Martin wrote that Cassel had painted half of the “Primordial Chaos” series, a procession of images meant to illustrate the birth of the world and the dualities of life.

Another scholar, Kurt Almqvist, who helped publish af Klint’s catalog raisonné, a comprehensive listing of her complete works, supported Martin’s view after studying the densely written notebooks of af Klint and Cassel, which span thousands of pages.

“Should the paintings still be attributed to Hilma af Klint? No,” Almqvist said in an interview.

In one passage in her notebooks, af Klint had written, “We stood at the portal of the prison gate, calm united power kept Hilma and Anna in calm united love.” She went on to write that “drawing XVI, Anna was instructed to paint it in such a way that she tried to imagine the color.”

Cassel is more direct in her own notebooks, simply stating that she “painted No. XVI.” Almqvist is still in the process of parsing the Cassel notebooks, which he recently discovered in the attic of a group known as the Anthroposophical Society, adherents of the Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who sought a mind, body and spiritual balance, and whose followers included af Klint and Cassel.

Almqvist and Martin say the new findings call into question the scholarship of previous exhibitions like the 2018 show at the Guggenheim.

Tracey Bashkoff, a curator who organized the Guggenheim exhibition, said that as the research came to light it very much changed perceptions of af Klint’s role. “We knew that as soon as the exhibition catalog went to press that it was out of date,” she said. Speaking of “Primordial Chaos,” the series that commanded the museum’s second ramp, Bashkoff said, “I have to shift my mind-set on how these are collaborative works and not Hilma works.”

The Tate Modern in London currently has an exhibition comparing the development of abstraction by af Klint and Mondrian in which the curators have included work by Cassel and have noted the collective nature of af Klint’s practice.

“I have no doubt there is much more to discover about af Klint’s working methods in the context of this groundbreaking group of women,” said Briony Fer, one of the show’s curators.

A Foundation Divided

As the art world reconfigures its understanding of af Klint — who for her entire life worked under its radar — the future of her foundation is being determined by the Swedish courts.

The painter, who never married and had no heirs, created the Hilma af Klint Foundation through her estate to safeguard her legacy. Led by family members and adherents from her spiritual society, its governing bylaws prevent the sale of works made between 1906 and 1915; af Klint said they had been made at the behest of a higher being. (Later works may be sold if needed for the preservation of the remaining collection.)

Rivalry between the artist’s family (which appoints a board chairman) and the Anthroposophical Society (which appoints trustees) has delayed initiatives, including plans for a temple to preserve the artist’s work.

Both sides have characterized the discord as the inevitable consequence of greed, the unfortunate byproduct of af Klint’s sudden fame and the sharp trajectory of the market for her work. The prices have escalated because sales are so rare. Even minor watercolors made when she still created figurative landscapes have occasionally appeared in Swedish auctions, selling for thousands of dollars.

The clash between relatives and members of the spiritual society deepened last year over a short-lived project to sell NFTs of work attributed to af Klint through a company owned by the musician Pharrell Williams.

In a lawsuit filed in April, Erik af Klint, the great-grandnephew of the artist and the Hilma af Klint Foundation’s chairman, said that business agreements have been struck without the approval of the foundation board and without his knowledge. The suit accuses board members of collaborating with its chief executive, Jessica Höglund, on deals to produce NFTs, books about af Klint and an immersive experience that would benefit them, not the foundation. The suit said they had waived licensing rights, causing the foundation to miss out on millions of dollars. The suit also asserts that publishing profits associated with af Klint have increased tenfold, from an estimated $350,000 in 2018 to $3.5 million in 2021, but that the revenue has gone to a foundation run by Almqvist, the scholar, rather than the Af Klint Foundation.

“They are trying to gain a profit from people’s search for inner meaning,” Erik af Klint said about the board members in an interview.

He said he hoped the courts would let him reshuffle the board and cancel contracts overseen by the chief executive, whom he has tried to dismiss. He added that he was worried about the commercialization of his relative’s art and the foundation’s finances: “We can manage for another year, but not much more.”

Höglund and the board have disputed the family’s assertions, saying the deals were correctly processed without requiring the family’s involvement and have recently brought $100,000 into the foundation. “As to my alleged dismissal,” Höglund said in a statement, “Erik af Klint has not been authorized to dismiss me.”

Three board members have resigned in response to the infighting with the family. One of them was Almqvist, who has defended the work done by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, which has published several books on the artist and which he leads as chief executive.

Almqvist said that the copyrights to Hilma af Klint’s works held by the foundation expired in 2014, and that, contrary to the assertions in the suit, Ax:son Johnson had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in publishing profits to support the artist’s foundation so that it remains in good financial health.

He suggested that the family was trying to gain control of the foundation for many reasons, including the chance to raise its social status. He offered an analogy: “Imagine you wake up one morning and realize your grandfather is Henri Matisse. You might ask why you aren’t doing things to make your family more prominent.”

Toward a New Understanding

As the court battles continue, scholars like Martin have remained steadfast in championing a new understanding of af Klint and her collaborators. Cassel, Martin says, was more than a friend of af Klint’s — she was a lover.

She said it was a misinterpretation to understand the female artists as a cloister of “nuns.” Furthermore, af Klint’s collaborations went beyond the kind of assistance found in other artist studios.

“She was very interested in sex and the question of love,” Martin explained, suggesting that the other women in af Klint’s life would be the subject of future study. “We must re-evaluate our understanding of af Klint,” Martin added. “Perhaps take her down from her pedestal a bit.”

Marie Cassel, a distant relative of Anna, said the Cassel family would not attempt to claim ownership over any paintings held by the af Klint foundation’s collection that Anna devised.

“I want Anna to be recognized as an independent artist,” Cassel said, eager to see her relative get some of the overdue credit. “The story of Hilma af Klint has been very firm and absolute, but the truth is different than we thought.”

Now in her 70s, Cassel said she would not take sides in the foundation dispute. “These were women who wanted to do something good,” she said. “Something beautiful.”

Zachary Small is a reporter who covers the dynamics of power and privilege in the art world. They have written for The Times since 2019. More about Zachary Small

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