Review: ‘Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint,’ obscurity to art world star
Did Swedish artist Hilma af Klint invent abstract art in 1906?
No, but that’s the myth that has been taking hold ever since a major exhibition of her remarkable paintings took the international artworld by storm seven years ago.
Klint’s absorbing abstractions do predate those of the male artists often tagged with the claim. But in reality, those assertions about the marvelous paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, František Kupka and Kasimir Malevich don’t hold up to scrutiny either. In addition to the aboriginal societies that have employed abstraction for centuries, little-known European painters like Georgiana Houghton in England and Victor Hugo in France were dabbling in pure abstraction in the mid-19th century.
A new German documentary film, “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint,” brushes up against the erroneous claim but fortunately doesn’t gather it up into a full embrace. Director Halina Dyrschka’s movie, her feature documentary debut, was set for release in U.S. theaters at the end of the month until the novel coronavirus pandemic scuttled the plan. Beginning Friday, it will be available on Kino Marquee, the so-called virtual movie theater streaming service for art-house fare.
It’s more than worth a look — not only for its careful illumination of the artist’s biography, plus an abundant representation of her luminous paintings, but for the way in which it exposes the obstacles af Klint and her legacy faced.
The reputation of af Klint (1862-1944) has come a far distance since her paintings were rescued from almost total obscurity more than 30 years ago. “The Spiritual in Art” was a sprawling 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, organized to celebrate the opening of a brand new building — ironically, an edifice now being torn down. The little-known Swede was put side-by-side with her famous German, Dutch, Czech and Russian contemporaries, who put abstract painting at the forefront of Modern art in the early 20th century.
What all these artists shared was an attraction to spiritual and sometimes mystical philosophies. They included the extreme occultist theosophy of Russian writer Helena Blavatsky and the more sober version found in the anthroposophy of Austrian social reformer Rudolf Steiner.
Dyrschka interweaves af Klint’s intense spiritual interests with the radical theory of special relativity being advanced at the same time by physicist Albert Einstein and others. Spirituality collides with science in a visual exploration of invisible wonders.
On occasion the film feels like it’s advocating for rather than simply documenting spiritual philosophy as the art’s driver, as if Raphael’s greatness requires faith in a classical vision of Roman Catholicism or a belief in Buddhist principles is essential to reverence for the paintings of Guanxiu. Nonetheless, it manages an illuminating articulation of the era’s social and cultural complexities.
The filmed interviews with curator Iris Müller-Westermann, who organized the revealing 2013 retrospective at Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, and gifted American artist Josiah McElheny, who is a longtime enthusiast of af Klint’s work, are two reasons why. The curator knows her subject as deeply as anyone, while the artist provides a working understanding of cultural forces in play. Both deftly walk the tightrope of being at once intimately enthralled and broadly eloquent.
Together with insights from a number of other historians of art and science, plus a few of the painter’s descendants, af Klint’s unusual story takes shape. Born into an aristocratic family of naval officers, and upon adulthood choosing not to marry, she first studied art as a means to support herself, with an eye to becoming a commercial illustrator.
As the alert recording of surface reality gave way to a speculative search for what lay “beyond the visible,” af Klint developed distinctive theories of color, line and shape. She composed them into elaborate, often large cosmic diagrams.
The largest are 10 feet tall — big, radiant canvases whose color glows through the use of pure pigments mixed with egg yolk. A traditional technique largely replaced by oil paint during the Renaissance, egg tempera in af Klint’s hands leaves a thin veil of smooth paint that captures light within a membrane of clear, vivid color. The addition of metallic leaf adds shine.
To give a sense of the artist’s process, Dyrschka filmed a surrogate painting full-scale copies of af Klint’s work. That might not have been the best idea. Although the film includes no documentation of af Klint’s actual working process, the surrogate is shown painting on large sheets of paper unfurled across the floor.
The inevitable reference is to the innovative, even iconic abstract painting methods later employed by Americans Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler in the 1940s and 1950s, which may or may not have been the actual case for af Klint. The device comes across as an unnecessary crutch to establish avant-garde credentials.
Perhaps the intention was to compensate for one of the film’s most straightforward and compelling theses for af Klint’s obscurity, despite the self-evident brilliance of her bracing, monumental art. Although her abstract paintings were shown in a 1928 London exhibition, af Klint sold no paintings during her lifetime. She further decreed in her estate that none should be sold after her death.
Af Klint’s demise in 1944 and rediscovery in 1986 coincide with the birth and subsequent explosion of an international modern art market, from which her work was summarily excluded. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which wrote the pioneering history of abstract painting through the twin engines of exhibitions and collecting, owns not a single af Klint painting, and probably never will. The enormous, 2012 MoMA exhibition “Inventing Abstraction” included nothing by the Swede.
Af Klint’s life’s work is a direct challenge to the market’s power in shaping how we tell stories about art. That she’s an international sensation today makes af Klint more distinctive than any shaky claim to being “the first abstract artist” ever could.
'Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint'
In English, German, Swedish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Available April 17 on KinoNow; virtual theatrical release, Laemmle Monica Film Center
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