Review: Beyond The Visible

The paintings of Hilma af Klint on display at the Guggenheim Museum

Beyond The Visible (2019)
Director: Halina Dyrschka

In the winter of 2018, I was part of the record-breaking crowds that swarmed the Guggenheim Museum to see Hilma af Klint’s mystical and enigmatic paintings. Like most museum visitors, I had never heard of the Swedish artist before her retrospective at the Guggenheim. Although af Klint is one of modernism’s pioneers, with abstract works that predate Kandinsky and Mondrian, she barely exhibited her work in her lifetime. According to the instructions in her will, her artwork was to be kept out of the public eye until at least twenty year after her death. She also stipulated that they could never be sold. Af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, and when her paintings were finally examined in the 1960s, the art world didn’t know what to do with them. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art turned them down, not understanding their value. Beyond The Visible argues that the blindness has to do with the fact that af Klint was a woman making explicitly spiritual works. Her genius couldn’t be seen because it wasn’t male.

In some ways, af Klint’s artistic journey was typical of the male artists of her time. She was born into aristocratic family of naval officers, and was well-educated in the arts and sciences. She worked for many years as a portraitist, illustrator, and landscape artist, and made a good living doing so. But while she was doing this conventional work, she was also exploring spiritual realms with four other classmates from art school. The five women met regularly to study theosophy, a mixture of philosophy and theology that posits that all religions come from a common spiritual root. Through her meetings with these women, af Klint began to explore abstract drawing. She was reaching for a visual language that could describe what was unseen. Like many of the abstract painters that began to emerge in the early twentieth century, she was influenced by scientific discoveries in physics and biology.

Af Klint broke from her peers in 1906, when she began creating the first known series of abstract paintings. She worked at a rapid pace for several years, and claimed to be channeling energies from other realms. These paintings are full of strange symbols, and have a distinctive color palette with a lot of pink, lavender, orange, and yellow. There is a sharpness and clarity to shapes that are reminiscent of mathematical equations and astronomical maps. And yet af Klint’s symbolic language remains mysterious, even to the art historians who have been studying her work for decades, and who appear throughout Beyond the Visible to put af Klint’s work into context. When I saw the paintings, I was surprised by how personal they seemed, influenced by the plants and trees af Klint grew up with, the nautical maps she must have been exposed to her in naval family, and the scientific discoveries occurring in her lifetime. One art historian describes her mission as that of a person trying to depict the reality that we can’t see and touch. Af Klint wrote that she was trying to show the evolution of the soul.

If you want to know more about af Klint’s biography and art work, Beyond The Visible is an informative and important documentary. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I would have gotten as much from it if I hadn’t seen af Klint’s paintings in person. Part of their grandeur is their size, which director Halina Dyrschka tries to show in staged re-enactments depicting a young af Klint stretching canvas (or sailcloth?) across a floor and kneeling on it to make her enormous paintings. These re-enactments worked well to convey the magnitude of af Klint’s work, but they didn’t seem fully imagined. The actor playing af Klint was dressed formally, in a long skirt and high-necked blouse, and I wasn’t convinced that was how an artist of the time would have dressed in the privacy of her studio. It’s a small thing, but I felt like there were places where this documentary could have been a bit more curious about how a woman like af Klint existed in her day-to-day life.

You’ll get a better sense of the power of af Klint’s paintings in Oliver Assayas’s Personal Shopper, about a young woman (Kristin Stewart) who is trying to contact her deceased twin brother. She becomes fascinated with af Klint’s paintings and as she scrolls through them on her phone I was struck by the way they seemed to reach across time, giving a message of hope to the grieving young woman — and to the viewer.

★★★1/2
VOD on various platforms

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