Modern Woman: Hilma af Klint and the Emergence of Abstraction

  • Jadranka Ryle

Student thesis: Phd


In this thesis I analyse the intersection of abstraction, modernist esoteric movements, spirituality and feminism in early twentieth-century Europe. Through the analysis and contextualisation of the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter recently recognised by many critics as one of the pioneers of abstraction, I explore how her spiritualism and gender political concern for the role of women in society inform the creation of radical abstract aesthetics. My research combines historical analysis with feminist and queer theories to offer a micro-history of the interrelated discursive upheavals of modernism, such as the rise in popularity of esoteric movements, the resurgence of national romanticism and mythology, aesthetic debates on decoration, social change in the private and public spheres, changes in modern music, ecology and botany. By placing af Klint's work in these historical discursive contexts, I explore the gender struggle at the centre of the formative years of abstraction. Rejecting patriarchal values and institutions, af Klint's work is often gender-ambivalent or androgynous, consistently charting a feminine alternative to patriarchal aesthetics. I argue that af Klint's work via engagements in spiritualism and theosophy, innovated unique and idiosyncratic abstract forms by turning diagrammatic and utopian abstractions towards a newly feminine abstraction of becoming.
Date of Award31 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCordelia Warr (Supervisor) & Charles Miller (Supervisor)


  • Hilma af Klint
  • abstraction
  • feminism
  • modernism

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