For decades, art historians have believed that Vasily Kandinsky created the first abstract painting in 1911. It’s true because the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the grand arbiter of such matters, says so. Or so folks thought.
Wrong. Sweden’s Hilma af Klint was doing abstract painting in 1906. Yet her work was not widely exhibited, because, you know, women really aren’t that good at painting. Or so folks thought.
The new documentary “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint” makes a great case that art history needs a serious rewrite. Art experts already know the truth, of course. That’s because in 2018 the Guggenheim Museum in New York organized a sweeping retrospective of her work larger than any exhibition of af Klint’s previously staged. The exhibition ran for six months and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The exhibition, in short, was astonishing. And in what must drive art collectors mad, not a single piece of her art is available for purchase. When af Klint died in 1944, she left all of her art as well as thousands of notebooks and sketches to her grand-nephew Johan af Klint, with the stipulation that none of it was ever to be sold. And she had one other stipulation: that her work would not be exhibited until 20 years after her death.
The world started seeing af Klint’s paintings in 1986, but the Guggenheim exhibition raised af Klint’s profile to rock-star status.
During the show New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote that af Klint’s “paintings definitively explode the notion of modernist abstraction as a male project.”
Halina Dyrschka, the director of the documentary, starts off in a way you might expect — with af Klint’s birth in 1862 to a comfortable family headed by a Swedish naval commander. As she matured, she didn’t marry, but instead wanted to focus on art. At 20, she was accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and after graduating, she was moderately successful in selling naturalistic paintings — something that was considered respectable at the time.
But she was intrigued by new theories of quantum mechanics and relativity, and how science showed that some of the structures of the universe were “beyond the visible.” Af Klint was also interested in the ideas of theosophy and spiritualism, and she said she wanted “to show the world as it exists.” And to do so, she decided she must invent it.
Those ideas led to her abstract paintings in 1906. Her first group of nonobjective work was titled “The Paintings for the Temple,” and were produced between 1906 and 1915. As the Guggenheim curators noted in their exhibition notes, the paintings are “strikingly diverse, incorporating both biomorphic and geometric forms, expansive and intimate scales, and maximalist and reductivist approaches to composition and color.”
We get to see her notebooks about her art, with her incredibly detailed sketches. But regrettably, the documentary has few photos of her at work, and instead uses re-enactments. That’s because such biographical material doesn’t exist. So the director works with what she has. And that’s enough. She assembles your usual suspects of art historians, primarily women, who are aghast that af Klint has been overlooked for so long.
It should be noted that the artist’s family did not approve at the time of af Klint’s artistic ambition, and such attitudes might have played a role in her rarely exhibiting her paintings. The male-dominated art world was also reluctant to give her a break.
Most of af Klint’s art now belongs to a foundation bearing her name, which has more than 1,200 pieces. The foundation also has an agreement with a Stockholm museum to have a dedicated space for af Klint’s art.
One of the most intriguing notions about the documentary occurs almost as an aside, when we hear the grand-nephew and other curators acknowledging that they haven’t looked through all of af Klint’s notebooks. They’re just so much of ephemera and notes to digest. And you wonder what else historians might eventually find.
Whatever happens, at least af Klint’s art has become visible.
‘Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint’
Screening at austinfilm.org
Directed by Halina Dyrschka