Movie Review: Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint
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Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint
Documentary by Halina Dryschka
Year: 2019; Origin: Germany
Runtime: 93 mins; Color
Language: English, German, and Swedish
Subtitles: English
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Release date: April 17, 2020

Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian are credited with pioneering the European abstract art movement and their highly influential early 20th century works have long been integrated into our pop culture. But in recent years, it’s come to light that another artist — a woman, in fact — actually began creating abstract paintings before Kandinsky. That person was Hilma af Klint, the subject of a new documentary from Zeitgeist Films.

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, which opens virtually this weekend, explores the life and works of this truly pioneering Swedish artist, who took her first foray into abstract painting in 1906, several years before Kandinsky. She even died the same year as Kandinsky and Mondrian (1944). So why has this visionary never been credited until recently?

Through interviews with current artists, art and science historians and curators, and af Klint’s surviving relatives, along with up-close looks at and readings from journals entries, sketches, and paintings, director Halina Dryschka seeks to introduce the world to this little-known artist who broke gender boundaries of the time, created a new art style, and died in obscurity.

Photo of Hilma af Klint from Beyond the Visible.

In the film, New York artist Josiah McElheny posits that while in science citations can be overturned, in art history they seemingly cannot. Therefore, while the discovery of af Klint’s contributions can be added as a footnote to the annals of art history, we can’t expect art history to be rewritten, even if it’s warranted.

Judging by af Klint’s works, it appears to be warranted, though.

Much like the artist’s life seemed to be, this film comes across as serene — it’s a slow-moving documentary of a serious nature, with several languages spoken, but no flash, gimmicks, or hyped narration. It even begins as abstract as the painter’s later compositions, taking several minutes before af Klint’s name is even mentioned and nearly 11 minutes until the title credits appear. In the meantime, you’re not sure what exactly you’re watching. Is this about nature, philosophy, science? Yes, if you consider the subject matter of this marginalized artist’s life’s work.

The Dove No. 2, from Group IX Series SUW/UW1914-1915 by Hilma Af Klint

Born in Sweden in 1862, af Klint was the daughter of a navel commander who made sure she was given a proper education, including math, astronomy, and navigation. She later went on to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she met her best friend and likely patron Anna Cassel. She began as a traditional artist, with portraiture, landscape painting, and nature and anatomy pieces, including male nudes, which was risque for a woman at the time. She later became an illustrator and did artwork for a veterinary institute, which was considered a suitable way of earning a living for an unmarried, educated, young woman.

But though her conventional artwork provided a means of financial self-support, it wasn’t her passion. Along with Cassel and a group of other women, af Klint’s went on to became involved in spiritualism and the Theosophical movement, which provided an avenue for her experimental art and gave her more independence in a world that expected women to become nothing more than dedicated wives and mothers. She was 44 when she began her journey into what would become known as abstract art, where she painted geometric shapes and spirals inspired by religion, astronomy, science and nature, incorporating bursts of color in an effort to make the invisible visible.

In her journals, which her nephew inherited and are heavily featured in the documentary, af Klint wrote that her abstract works were not really “created” by her, but that she was merely the vessel of a higher power that moved through her. It was proclamations like these along with her time as a medium who held seances, that allowed the art establishment to dismiss her radical artwork and reject her requests for inclusion in art exhibitions.

Meanwhile, the men who came after her are considered pioneering geniuses.

Group X, Altarpieces, Nos. 1–3 (1915) by Hilma af Klint

The artist’s groundbreaking offerings were not only rejected by the patriarchy in her own lifetime, but were in recent decades snubbed by the establishment. It’s no wonder that af Klint left instructions in her will to not have her artwork publicly displayed until 20 years after her death. Thankfully, her creations survived years in storage in extreme temperature conditions and have been shared now for all to see.

If there’s a jaw-dropping moment in this quiet, yet driven documentary it’s when af Klint’s abstract paintings are shown side by side against similar pieces from celebrated artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Cy Twombly, and Paul Klee. Straight and wiggly lines, colorful circles, triangles, spirals… they all did it, but it’s clear that af Klint did it first.

The interviewees in this film all share a common frustration at how af Klint didn’t and still hasn’t been given the proper credit and recognition she deserves. By the end of Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, you’ll share in this sentiment with them.

Image from Beyond the Visible.

Of note: The first posthumous display of her art was in 1986 as part of “The Spiritual in Art” exhibit at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, while 2018 saw the opening of her first solo exhibition in the United States at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which broke the NYC museum’s 60-year attendance record. I was fortunate enough to see the NYC exhibit (“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”), featuring 167 paintings and 7 notebooks, which is why this documentary caught my eye. Having seen this collection up close, I can say it was awe-inspiring and that the filmmakers are justified in their push for af Klint to be given her rightful place amongst the greats in art history. The Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm currently has the permanent collection in their Hilma af Klint Room.

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint had been scheduled for theatrical release in NY and Los Angeles on April 17, 2020, but due to social gathering restrictions in place because of the current pandemic, the film is now available to watch online via Kino Marquee‘s “Virtual Cinema.” For the full list of release dates by city along with links to purchase tickets, visit Zeitgeist Films.



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