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Documentary 'Beyond The Visible: Hilma Af Klint' Makes Solid Case For Abstract Artist

Hilma af Klint paints in the streaming-on-demand documentary <em>Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint.</em>
Kino Lorber
Hilma af Klint paints in the streaming-on-demand documentary Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint.

The book Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925 was published by the Museum of Modern Art in 2012, accompanying an exhibit that displayed the early, formative works of acknowledged masters like Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Robert Delaunay. But missing from the dozens of names included is Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist whose abstract work predates Kandinsky's fully abstract compositions yet never got a fraction of their recognition. There are vanishingly few women included in the book at all, much less anyone who could be understood as a pioneer.

The meat-and-potatoes art documentary Beyond the Visible—Hilma af Klint, now streaming as part of Kino Now's "Virtual Cinema" program, doubles as profile and corrective, making an extensive case for Klint as a major artist while casting a jaundiced eye on how art history gets written. As such, it's a natural companion to Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, the 2018 documentary about the neglected history of an early-cinema artist who rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as the Lumière brothers or George Méliès. (Both were picked up by the same distributor, too — Zeitgeist Films.) Beyond the Visible isn't as lively as Be Natural, but it's a more persuasive and well-sourced piece of research. It may get a C for style, but it breezes through the thesis committee.

As it happens, Klint makes the case for herself just fine. Her work was rarely exhibited when she was alive, but the art she bequeathed to a reluctant nephew miraculously survived some poor storage decisions and she also left behinds tens of thousands of pages of notes, some cataloging her paintings and others waxing philosophical. "Those granted the gift of seeing more deeply can see beyond form," she wrote, "and concentrate on the wondrous aspect behind every form, which is called life." In that one sentence, Klint outlines a mission statement that extends beyond the natural and observable; in concert with new developments in science and spirituality, she wanted her art to express the hidden symmetries and patterns. In that sense, abstraction was a sensible solution to a problem.

It certainly didn't seem that way at the time, however. Born to an aristocratic family in 1862, Klint attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a popular destination for wealthy young women with a restless creative streak. (In an early sign of rebellion, she sketched full nudes out of the men who posed in modest loincloths.) Her landscape and portrait paintings were a good source of income, marked by an impulse to make both more beautiful than they were in real life. But several years into the new century, Klint boldly abandoned naturalism for abstract art, an evolution that happened much more quickly than it did for contemporary artists like Kandinsky.

Beyond the Visible surveys artists, historians and descendants to provide some context to Klint's work, which changed in response to scientific revelations about soundwaves, radioactivity, relativity theory, and other phenomena that struck her as an invisible universe, flush with possibilities. At the same time, Klint and four of her Royal Academy classmates, calling themselves "The Five," started communing with the spirit world through séances. Her passion for theosophy, the late 19th century religion that seeks to unify all the disparate religions, also helped inform a mission to give form to the heavenly and ineffable.

Director Halina Dyrschka initially stages Beyond the Visible as a deep-dive into the archives, with white-gloved researchers unearthing paintings and journal entries in front of the camera. But Beyond the Visible quickly settles into a more conventional assembly of talking heads and archival material, springing to life only when Dyrschka makes direct comparisons between Klint's art and similar, later works by bigger names like Klee, Josef Albers, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. It may not have been advisable for Dyrschka to match Klint's experimental vigor with some of her own, but the film could stand a bigger jolt of energy.

At best, the film stands to raise Klint's stock in the art world and provoke curators, galleries, and historians to think harder about the boundaries women face in an art scene that still caters predominantly to men. Klint's obscurity in her own time makes her omission in art history books understandable, but the path to recognition is difficult and to revision nearly impossible. Even in the abstract realm, some things are set in stone.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.