A Room of One's Own first edition cover by Vanesa Bell

A Room of One’s Own first edition cover by Vanessa Bell. Image: Wikipedia.

In Virginia Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own, she outlined the living conditions that she believed women and artists need to be able to work and live a fulfilled life. Woolf believed that money is an important element for women and artists to be able to create and elaborated how money can act as an influence. In Woolf’s book, readers can feel her anger and her vitality. She was angry about the unfair treatment of women by the patriarchal society. She was also angry that women were cowardly drifting through life and not making more efforts to fight for their rights. In the book, Woolf wrote about her eagerness for money. She promoted and encouraged women to fight for it: “I should implore you to remember your responsibilities, to be higher, more spiritual; I should remind you how much depends upon you, and what an influence you can exert upon the future” (Woolf 110). But the reader can understand and sympathize with Woolf’s mood. Living in an age when women could not be in power, how to survive became their problem, not even to mention creating art.

Hilma af Klint, Woolf’s contemporary and also a female artist, was more focused on spiritual pursuits: “Hilma af Klint’s work is based on the awareness of a spiritual dimension to our existence that was largely marginalized in an increasingly materialistic world. She aimed at making visible the interrelations beyond those the eye can perceive” (Muller-Westermann 33). Af Klint did not care about money and the physical world. Her artistic creations were unusual. She was the pioneer of abstract art, far ahead of male artists such as Kandinsky.

Although Woolf and af Klint seem to run counter to each other, they prove each other’s positions. If people think carefully and compare their experiences, it is not difficult to find that their differences in thought come from the differences in their lives. Af Klint validated Woolf’s idea that money is the foundation of creation and became the ideal female role model of Woolf’s thought.

Svanen (The Swan) by Hilma af Klint

Svanen (The Swan), nr 17, Group 9, Series SUW, October 1914 – March 1915. This abstract work was never exhibited during af Klint’s lifetime. Image: Wikipedia.

I learned about af Klint in a drawing class. I was curious about her when the professor said: ”Who could image that the first abstract artist would be a woman?” enthusiastically. I was fascinated by her works and experiences after I researched her. Af Klint’s works are huge and colorful and make the viewers happy to see them. She used symbolic images to express what she saw in the spiritual world: “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 surely, without changing a single brushstroke.” (Enderby 17) I admire her when she said that she had not hesitated in her paintings. I always struggle with whether the painting is perfect or not during my creating process and ignore the fun and my real thoughts and feelings. But af Klint was so direct, so real face to herself and reminded me of the meaning of creation. On the other hand, like af Klint, I study the occult so I can understand more about the symbolism in her paintings. Although af Klint is still mysterious, I seem to have found a confidant.

Woolf thought money was fundamental. Money could help women build universities for themselves and learn and broaden their horizons. Money could also help them think and inspire them to create. However, patriarchal society deprived women of money, ownership, and education: “He was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me” (Woolf 6). Woolf, as a woman who did not go to the university, showed her anger and frustration at social injustice.

Thanks to her outstanding painting talent, af Klint, on the other hand, became the first woman to study at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm: “Luckily, the Scandinavian education system already admitted both men and women to their Academies (unlike France and Germany) and it was not uncommon for women to make a living from their art.” (The Art Story Par 10). Later in life, af Klint made a living by painting landscapes. Because af Klint was never short of money, she did not feel Woolf’s anger and did not reflect on the injustice of society toward women. She was more like a greenhouse flower: she had not experienced material hardships and, therefore, it was easier for her to pursue the spiritual satisfaction.

Today, however, women are still not independent. Male chauvinism is rooted in women’s minds.

Because of that, women do not even need to be forced by men to do things. Their subconscious operates in a way that makes them feel inferior to men. Woolf advocated material independence to expand the spiritual independence of women. She knew that money was the key to making women no longer rely on men. Marriage, which is supposed to be a happy thing, became a symbol of interest. In ancient times, women had no choice but to be manipulated by their parents and were sold as goods to men. In modern times, some women choose to objectify themselves, believing that marriage is the only way to ensure a prosperous life: “Industrial and applied art had long been considered proper fields of female employment for women of the lower classes: now women of a higher class were seeking art education of a more pretentious kind. At the same time, few of them believed that the practice of art was in itself superior to a life of wedded bliss” (Greer 310). They rely on their husbands and see them as the center of their lives. They give up the opportunity of learning to think, and therefore, they will never pursue their spiritual and artistic needs.

Af Klint chose not to marry for the rest of her life and immersed herself in the spiritual realm and in creating art. Although she lived in Sweden, a relatively democratic country, she had more opportunities to study and survive as a female artist. Male artists, as the mainstream group, occupied the most important positions and had the power over discourse: “That said, it’s irrefutable that although women artists were tolerated, they were rarely, if ever, encouraged to express the kind of radical ideas that marked their male contemporaries as innovators. All of the teachers at the Academy were men, and it was generally assumed that women might paint as a hobby until they married, when they were expected to devote their time to family. (It is telling that many nineteenth-century female artists, such as af Klint, remained single)” (Enderby 18). Very few women took on art as their jobs. Nowadays, many parents push their daughters to study art to make them into quiet “ladies” instead of exercising their minds. Ironically, the purpose of being a “lady” is to make it easier for their daughters to marry later.

The Ten Largest by Hilma af Klint

The Ten Largest nr 3, Youth, Group 4, 1907. Image: Wikipedia.

Af Klint’s thought was advanced for her time. She was independent and focused, and nothing could disturb her work. Without the burden of dependency, af Klint became a free spirit and devoted her life to artistic creation. If people understand her spiritual world they are able to experience the innumerable treasures that she left and be led into the realm of the abstract world she ruled over as a queen.

Woolf referred to the concept of “androgyny” in her book: “It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought.” (98) A great person should think about one problem in many different ways and create without limitation and prejudice. Stan noted in his essay that female artists, different from male artists, depict the female nude with both femininity and masculinity. These works are more real and vivid than male artists.’ Af Klint chose to span across all genders, the material, the thing that the naked eye can see, to describe the spiritual world. Her works are about nothingness, but they are also correct and neutral, and worth thinking about.

However, af Klint did not luck out completely: she was also lost in the male-dominated society.

Even though af Klint said in her will that the world was not ready for her paintings, she did show her abstract works to others. She showed her works to her admirer Rudolf Steiner but was severely rejected by him. Steiner argued that these intensely personal works could not be called art, and could not be made public. Af Klint took his advice and hid the paintings: “Even though af Klint was one of the earliest Western artists to wholeheartedly engage with abstraction, the most visible discussions of it as a viable new artistic language were conducted by men, all of whom were proficient at self-promotion. Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian – who were all interested, to varying degrees, in spiritualism and Theosophy – contributed to, and were written about, in articles, manifestos, lectures and journals, in none of which af Klint took part.” (Enderby 18) It was not fair that these male artists succeeded when they showed their distinctive abstract art to viewers. They were a few years behind af Klint when she created her abstract works, but they are still been praised. The word “father of abstract art” is ironic and helpless before af Klint. Perhaps women have become accustomed to being humbled in patriarchal society. Af Klint’s quietness and aloofness reflected her confidence but also made people worry: Will women lose their social status even more? But the moment of loss did not bring down af Klint’s morale, and later in life, she worked even harder to portray her spiritual world.

Altarpiece by Hilma af Klint

Altarpiece nr 1, Group 10, 1907. Image: Wikipedia.

“Hilma is a disturbing artist,” Iris Müller-Westermann, curator of the Af Klint show, says excitedly. “We ask: what does it mean? Do we rewrite art history? Can we get away with saying she is an outsider? Can we put her in a box? Hilma was no layman, she was a trained and talented artist who knew about colour and composition.” She adds: “Creativity is bigger than art history. Hilma is like Leonardo – she wanted to understand who we are as human beings in the cosmos.” (Kellaway Par 9) Hilma af Klint hid the rest of her life away from the secular world and concentrated on her spiritual realm and created advanced works of art. She was so mysterious that people know very little about her. If people look up books or articles about abstract art and even female artists of the same period, few will mention Klint. Sadly, this is the case even though she has opened a new chapter in the history of art. Klint was a rare and independent woman. She seemed to be the epitome of the elusive ideal woman in Woolf’s book. Rather than saying that the patriarchal society had hidden her light, she had seen through the superficiality of the world and disdained to pursue the success of material and fame.

Not all women can do that. The first step is always the hardest. Woolf did her best to strive for the first and most fundamental material right of women: to be able to think and inspire others. But even in today’s society, most women do not achieve Woolf s expectations of how women should be.

Af Klint, as a female artist, transcended both the old and modern society. She is an iconic spiritual representative, worthy of  admiration and remembrance.


Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929. Print. Müller-Westermann, Iris, et al. Hilma Af Klint : A Pioneer of Abstraction. Ostfildern : Hatje

Cantz, [2013], 2013. Moderna Museet exhibition catalogue: no. 375. Print.

Enderby, Emma, et al. Hilma Af Klint : Painting the Unseen. London : Serpentine Galleries : Koenig Books, c2016., 2016. Print.

Kellaway, Kate. “Hilma Af Klint: a Painter Possessed.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 21 Feb. 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/21/hilma-af-klint-occult- spiritualism-abstract-serpentine-gallery.

The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist-af-klint-hilma.htm#biography_header.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race : The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979. Print.


Zhihan Wang is a sophomore majoring in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts.