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At the end of 2018, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum devoted its austere spiral gallery to an artist almost entirely unknown in the United States. Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, the first American survey exhibition of the 20th century Swedish artist, was a hit, attracting more than 600,000 visitors—the most in the museum’s history. This was partly because the exhibition upended common understandings of how artistic abstraction developed, but, judging by the reviews, it was mostly due to the strength and power of her massive, abstract paintings. We know from her copious notes that the act of creating them was a spiritual endeavor. Staring at the works—especially the group titled “The Ten Largest”—and following their undulations, curves, color gradations, and hard forms is spiritual as well.
Hilma af Klint is a singularly intriguing figure. Born in Sweden in 1862, she studied as a young woman at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she produced art firmly anchored in observations of the material world. By the turn of the 20th century, she was enmeshed in spiritualism and Theosophy. She joined a group of four other women artists, called The Five, and used mystical practices to communicate with entities they called the Great Masters. By 1906, she was making huge, abstract works channeling those spiritual messages. She decisively abandoned figurative painting at a time when her male peers across the continent were only beginning to flirt with unrecognizable forms and compositions. She continued interpreting and visualizing her grand message in shockingly original, stirring paintings until her death in 1944. Then she was lost, the story goes. She left her paintings to her nephew Erik with strict instructions that they not be shown to the public until 20 years after her death, feeling strongly that her work wouldn’t be received as it should in her time. (She was right: Even after the paintings were rediscovered, her work wasn’t shown until 1986 and didn’t gain wide reception until 2013.) But her oeuvre still has yet to be placed into the canon of art history.
Into the breach comes the persuasive, polemic documentary Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, directed by Halina Dyrschka. Beyond the Visible breathlessly campaigns for her recognition as a visionary. Af Klint, it points out, had adopted abstraction to communicate her ambitious, mystical messages well before Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Explosively, the documentary suggests that Kandinsky may have seen her work while developing his own, and that she should perhaps be cited as an influence.
Beyond the Visible makes the case for the artist seem open and shut. Interviews with art critics and historians highlight the ingenious nature of her painting. Armed with moral righteousness, simple filmmaking techniques punch above their weight. There’s a shocking sequence where af Klint’s work and extremely similar pieces by the male masters are displayed side-by-side, with dates appended. Af Klint’s work is always first. The sparse use of reenactments, which focus on the physicality of her painting, are grounding. The film interrogates her symbolic language’s prescience—it echoes the discoveries of the previously invisible makeup of the material world, like the structure of the atom, the visible light spectrum, and DNA. Thanks to Dyrschka’s intensive research, the film dismantles the narrative that she never showed her abstract works during her life, pointing to an overlooked 1928 exhibition of spiritual art in London. Af Klint, it argues, is being intentionally forgotten, because the story of abstraction is a heavily male one. Properly acknowledging her would require rewriting art history.
Yet af Klint herself is a ghost in Beyond the Visible, one the film can only communicate with through signs and symbols. Several publications have claimed she may have been queer (and many of the signs of queer life are there: She never married; she lived in a commune with four other women; her paintings interrogated the symbolic duality of human sex), but neither the documentary nor any of the mainstream exhibitions of her work address this theory. We hear from her nephew’s widow, Ulla af Klint, deceased by the time her interview makes it into the film, and her living descendants pass on some family stories handed to them. Attempts to really know Hilma are stymied by time and a lack of documentation; viewers see her stern face in a handful of photographs. We can assume she was brilliant, determined, and extremely dedicated to her projects. To learn more, all we can do is sit before her paintings—in person or in the lingering shots of the film—and attempt to connect with her in another world.
Beyond the Visible is available now to stream at Kino Marquee.