WOW Review: Volume XVI, Issue 2

A woman in a green dress paints abstract, colorful shapes onto the cover.The Art and Life of Hilma af Klint
Written by Ylva Hillström
Illustrated by Karin Eklund
Translated by B.J. Epstein
Thames & Hudson, 2022, 64 pp (unpaged)
ISBN: 978-0500653173

Hilma af Klint was born in 1862 at Karlberg Palace in Stockholm, Sweden. Born into a family of Navy commanders, Hilma was familiar with nautical charts and the concept of mapping the land, the sea, and what’s beneath the water. As a child, she studied math, sailing, physics, and botany. Later, she joined the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm as one of the first female students. After her sister’s death and into adulthood, Hilma became fascinated with the spirit world. As her spiritual journey evolved, she began “painting pictures that contained messages from the universe”. The invisible world guided her paintings. In her artistic journey, Hilma learned that not everyone was ready for the mysterious and non-figurative art she was creating; for example, author and theosophist Rudolf Steiner ignored her work repeatedly. However, she continued her “adventures to unknown places” that resulted in over a thousand pictures mapping the spiritual world. Before her death in 1944, Hilma asked her nephew Erik to take care of her work as she uttered: “The time isn’t right yet.” More than twenty years passed before Erik opened the crate and shared with the world the revolutionary work of the person who is, arguably, the inventor of abstract painting.

This picturebook makes a significant contribution to the history of art, particularly the role of female artists in the development of abstract art—a style historically attributed to male Russian artists Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. Addressing gender discrimination, the story introduces readers to additional female characters (Hilma’s sister Hermina, spurious mediums Kate and Maggie Fox, Hilma’s friends Anna, Mathilda, Cornelia, Sigrid, and theosophist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) whose brief but meaningful references create parallel counternarratives in a sociohistorical time that was male-dominant. The story also introduces readers to important concepts that explore the multiple influences shaping Hilma’s life, such as the idea of invisible waves from the work of inventors like Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. Other concepts defined in the book include spiritualism, theosophy, synesthesia, the Fibonacci sequence, and alchemy.

Karin Eklund created the illustrations that appear to be pencil and wash. The numerous characters have white or pale pink skin tones. Overall symbolism, juxtaposition of images, sporadic picture frames, white backgrounds, dynamic perspectives, changing fonts, occasional bolded words, contrast, movement, and a pale color palette support readers in engaging with and enjoying this unique story. The most salient feature about the illustrations is the integration of 15 reproductions of Hilma af Klint’s art and an interpretive chart of some of the symbols and colors in her work. Readers experience a mind-blowing effect when unfolding the four-illustration pop-up sequence of the Altarpiece series.

The Art and Life of Hilma af Klint is on the USBBY’s 2024 Outstanding International Books list and is perhaps the first introduction to the life of this artist to a young audience. The book can be paired with titles targeting an older audience, like Hilma af Klint: A Biography by Julia Voss (2022). It can also be paired with the documentary called “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint” by Zeitgeist Films (Official US trailer). Readers may also enjoy reading the af Klint story alongside the biography of Wassily Kandinsky in The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPre (2014). The biography visually explains synesthesia, a condition in which a person hears sounds in colors. The alphabet concept book on women artists, Women Artists A to Z by Melanie La Barge and Caroline Corrigan (2020), features well-known artists like Frida Kahlo, along with lesser-known artists like the Gee Bend Quilters and Hilma af Klint.

Ylva Hillström works as a curator in the Learning Department at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. She specializes in esoteric currents in early 20th-century art and is actively involved in environmental issues. For example, in 2016 she initiated Acclimatize—a platform encouraging creative responses to the climate crisis. She has also published two additional books about art in Swedish.

Karin Eklund is an illustrator, artist, author, university lecturer, yoga instructor and public speaker with an MA in Children’s Book Illustrations from Cambridge School of Art. The Art and Life of Hilma af Klint is her third picturebook. She has also illustrated book covers and posters. Visit Eklund’s website to learn more about her work.

B.J. Epstein is a writer, editor, and Swedish-to-English translator, who has authored books such as Are the Kids All Right? (2013) and Translating Expressive Language in Children’s Literature (2012). B.J. is also a senior lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in England. She lives with her wife and children and can be reached at

María V. Acevedo-Aquino, Texas A&M University-San Antonio

© 2023 by María V. Acevedo-Aquino

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WOW Review, Volume XVI, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work by María V. Acevedo-Aquino at

WOW review: reading across cultures
ISSN 2577-0527