Two Abstract Art Stars Finally ‘Meet’ in a Long-Awaited Museum Exhibition

In “Dreams of the Future,” Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky communicate posthumously through visual means.

An installation view of “Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky: Dreams of the Future.” Achim Kukulies

It’s a shame that the two preeminent stars of abstract art—Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky—never met in person. At one point, Swedish-born af Klint and Russian-born Kandinsky were miles apart from each other in Stockholm, where Kandinsky traveled in 1915 for an exhibition. They could have talked about their uncanny similarities, parallel lives and of course, their differences.

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But what if these premiere painters of abstraction actually shared a conversation? What would that dialogue look like? Would one overpower the other?

In “Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky: Dreams of the Future” at the K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany, curators Julia Voss and Daniel Birnbaum have constructed a meeting of these creative minds through visual means. It’s the first major museum show exhibiting their works like they were exchanging words: their otherworldly points of intersection as well as their distinct approaches to painting.

A collage of two black and white photos: one of a woman and one of a man
Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky. The Hilma af Klint Foundation / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2024

Both artists passed away in 1944. At age 45, they produced the marquee paintings in “Dreams of the Future,” both inspired by the spiritual. Nestled in a corner next to Improvisation 10, Composition IV stands out as a kaleidoscopic reflection of Kandinsky’s thoughts on the ethereal when he lived in Munich. He once said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul,” and fittingly, this statement applies to af Klint. She made her immense canvases, The Ten Largest, in 1907 in Stockholm, guided by— she claimed—mystical powers.

The Ten Largest comprise her core series of 193 works entitled “Paintings for the Temple.” She wrote in her journal that the “pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and safely, without changing a single brushstroke.”

This also explains why she did not write her name anywhere on her works. These ten towering pieces required mindfulness and muscle. Her friend and fellow artist, Cornelia Cederberg assisted her in the undertaking.

Wassily Kandinsky, Im Blau, 1925; Öl auf Pappe, 80 x 110 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Achim Kukulies

Speaking of collaboration, af Klint and Kandinsky saw the meaningful importance of engaging with artists in groups, and the curators highlight that here. Af Klint met with De Fem “The Five” (including Cederberg) from 1896 to 1908. They held seances and meditations and would create artwork from what they described as “higher beings.” This women-only society knew these forces by name: Amaliel, Ananda, Esther and Gregor. Af Klint’s friend and artist Anna Cassel’s pictures from The Saga of the Rose are shown in a room dedicated to the five. After the group dissolved, af Klint formed a lasting friendship and partnership in life and in art with Thomassine Andersson—also an artist who translated af Klint’s texts into German.

In Kandinsky’s world, he established “Der Blaue Reiter” (the Blue Rider) in 1911 with Franz Marc, and the artists in this community used abstraction to push the limits of real-life expression. The name of the collective is rooted in Kandinsky’s 1903 “Blaue Reiter” painting: a man in a blue cape on a horse in a lush field symbolizing movement from the physical realm into a hypothetical one.

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Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912)—a significant tome in Western art history with contributions from other artists, writers and musicians—is on display here with the Kandinsky-designed cover depicting Saint George (a spiritual icon) protecting a princess from a dragon. Likewise, af Klint portrayed Saint George in her Dove series (1915), with the holy figure slaying the dragon in the middle of a heart with crosses on both the top and bottom.

While Kandinsky’s writings and paintings like Der Blaue Reiter—not to mention his teaching at the Bauhaus—became widely known during his lifetime, af Klint faced a different reality. She didn’t amass the fame Kandinsky enjoyed. Only recently, thanks to the blockbuster 2018-2019 Guggenheim retrospective of af Klint’s work (“Paintings for the Future”), did she gain a massive following. Would af Klint be surprised to know she has over 131,000 followers on Instagram (in comparison to a comparable Kandinsky fan account with roughly 41,000 followers)?

As funny as this might sound, the magnet of af Klint’s iconic Altarbild, Gruppe X, Nr. 1 was sold out when I visited the museum gift shop. It’s this mesmerizing work that represents her on the museum’s poster of the show: a prism within a triangle intersecting a sun-like circle. Although there is no proof that Kandinsky saw Altarbild with his own eyes, he once wrote about the cohesion of these two geometric shapes: “The impact of the acute angle of a triangle on a circle is actually as overwhelming in effect as the finger of God touching the finger of Adam in Michelangelo.”

Hilma af Klint, Altarbild, Gruppe X, Nr. 1, 1915; Öl und Metallblätter auf Leinwand, 237,5 x 179,5 cm. Albin Dahlström / The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Schweden

Af Klint’s posthumous popularity also speaks to the layout of the exhibition. While the art world can argue that both af Klint and Kandinsky will live on as “pioneers of abstraction,” it is af Klint who dominates the discussion in “Dreams of the Future.” If one is to note how this show concludes, af Klint’s The Ten Largest leaves visitors with one resounding—and vividly colorful—exclamation point. She alone has the last word.

Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky: Dreams of the Future” is on view at the K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen through August 11.

Two Abstract Art Stars Finally ‘Meet’ in a Long-Awaited Museum Exhibition