The career-spanning exhibition of the work of Hilma af Klint that toured the world a few years ago — including a sojourn at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan — upended the conventional narrative of modern art history. This is hardly an academic matter. As Roberta Smith wrote in her review of the Guggenheim show, af Klint’s “paintings definitively explode the notion of modernist abstraction as a male project” — a revolution thought to have started with Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian in the years just before World War I and carried to heroic fruition by the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock after World War II.
But af Klint, as Smith put it, “got there first.” Born in 1862 to an aristocratic Swedish family and raised partly on the grounds of the military academy where her father was an instructor, she trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, mastering the traditional genres of portrait, still life and landscape. By the late 1880s, her notebooks and paintings began incorporating forms that, while they sometimes evoked natural phenomena (like snail shells, flower petals and insect wings), did not resemble anything in the visible world. Her work, which continued to evolve until her death in 1944, uses geometric patterns and curving, gestural lines to suggest esoteric meanings. Sometimes the images look like maps of a world that exists just past the horizon of rational consciousness.
“Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint,” a documentary by Halina Dyrschka, provides a thoughtful survey of its subject. It’s enriched by the dazzling charisma of her art and limited by the scarcity of biographical material. The timeline of her life is set forth, and her voice is conjured by passages from her voluminous notebooks, but the fact that she lived and worked so far from the centers of the art world means that some of the usual supporting material in a film like this is lacking. Nobody who remembers her well is still around. There are a handful of photographs of af Klint at various stages of her life, but no moving images, an absence Dyrschka addresses with discreet re-enactments that show af Klint in her studio.
The thin background information is a result of the neglect of this prolific and inventive artist for more than a century. “Beyond the Visible” is a chapter in the wholesale revision of the critical and historical record that began only recently, and it enlists a passionate and knowledgeable cadre of curators, scholars, scientists and artists to press the argument for af Klint’s importance. The paintings themselves are the best evidence — even through the mediation of a home screen, their vibrancy, wit and formal command is thrilling — but the intellectual and cultural context is fascinating too.
The experts link af Klint’s explorations with contemporary scientific discoveries, like radio waves and the X-ray, that pointed toward the unseen dimensions of reality, and also with the mystical movements of her time. She was drawn to the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and to the teachings of the Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner, with whom she corresponded. Her visionary interests, far from suggesting eccentricity, place her squarely in the mainstream of modernism, many of whose exponents in various arts (including Kandinsky) found inspiration in the esoteric.
“Beyond the Visible” bristles with the excitement of discovery and also with the impatience that recognition has taken so long. It refreshes the eyes and the mind.
Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint
Not rated. In Swedish, English and German, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. Watch on Kino Marquee.