'Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint': Film Review

Beyond the Visible Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
A must for anyone who cares about modern art.

Halina Dyrschka's globe-hopping documentary pays tribute to the visionary artist and mystic Hilma af Klint and challenges the boys' club mentality that long denied her the recognition she sought.

Almost a century before the recent, wildly popular Hilma af Klint retrospective at New York's Guggenheim, the Swedish artist imagined a spiraling white temple, not unlike that Manhattan landmark, as the home for her paintings. Most of what she envisioned for her art was denied her during her lifetime, but af Klint, ever prescient and prolific, understood her work's power and importance and, planning for posterity, she managed, in a way, to have the last laugh.

Like all great art, her abstract canvases make you feel more alive, and the sensory/emotional power they exert is entirely their own. In 1906, five years before Kandinsky claimed to be the world's first abstract painter, 44-year-old af Klint's Primordial Chaos series took painting into an untraveled realm light-years beyond the representational. But, as sculptor Josiah McElheny, one of the exceptionally incisive and engaging interviewees in the film, puts it, "People look for ways to dismiss things" — and in af Klint's case, being a woman, a mystic and a visionary were three handy reasons for dismissal.

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint — available for streaming on Kino Marquee and Laemmle Virtual Cinema — is the first feature-length documentary by Halina Dyrschka and also the first doc about this long-forgotten artist. It's an eloquent contribution to af Klint's rediscovery, which began four decades after her 1944 death. It's also a cogent argument for why that rediscovery impels nothing less than a rewriting of art history.

There's a catch-22 of brutal absurdity regarding af Klint. The art world establishment (read: MoMA) that declined to exhibit her abstract work when she was alive (with the exception of one London show in 1928) insisted after her death, as her canvases began to surface, that she can't truly be classified as an abstract artist because her work wasn't shown publicly during her lifetime. The Moderna Museet in Stockholm turned down her work in the 1970s on those flimsy grounds; in 2013, that museum's Iris Müller-Westermann (who appears in the film) curated the groundbreaking exhibit that put af Klint on the map as "A Pioneer of Abstraction."

Dyrschka and her well-versed talking heads debunk etched-in-stone notions about the modern canon, which tends to treat genius as the exclusive domain of men. In one jaw-dropping sequence of side-by-sides, af Klint paintings uncannily prefigure later work by celebrated contemporaries and descendants, among them Albers, Klee and Warhol.

Before she dove headlong into such esoteric yet primal matters as atoms, radioactivity and quantum theory, not to mention the occultist, pan-religious teachings of Madam Blavatsky's Theosophy, af Klint was a successful illustrator and painter of portraits and landscapes. Photographs of her in high-necked blouses and long skirts barely suggest the convention-defying spirit of the visual language she would create, but there's a crystalline light in her eyes.

It's not surprising that her aristocratic family didn't know what to make of her. But it's heartbreaking that one of her kindred spirits, the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner — a leading intellectual of his time and one whose lasting influence includes the Waldorf schools and biodynamic agriculture — was so cruelly discouraging when she showed him her artwork. And he certainly had no interest in the temple she envisioned to house her paintings; he had his own monument to build.

The Steiner archive in Switzerland is one of the many places Dyrschka visits to trace her subject's story, and to conduct interviews with artists, critics, curators, gallerists, collectors and historians (among them Julia Voss, author of a forthcoming af Klint biography). Her archival material includes a charmingly illuminating 2001 conversation with Ulla af Klint, widow of the nephew who inherited the artist's work — all 1,500 paintings and 26,000 notebook pages of it. After they got over the shock, her descendants took the responsibility seriously, keeping designated pieces private until 20 years after her death, and, most crucially, keeping all her work off the market. Hilma af Klint's sensuous visions of what she called "the wondrous aspect hiding behind every form" are not for sale. Take that, art world.

A reenactment of her at work on a large-scale piece (No. 7, Adulthood, from her monumental series The Ten Largest) is surprisingly well integrated, as are images of the natural world that so inspired her. But most effective is the way Dyrschka and her DPs, Alicja Pahl and Luana Knipfer, explore the canvases themselves: gliding across the surface, bringing details into focus, all with a strong sense of discovery and awe. They let the pieces wash over the viewer, with their brand-new geometries and spirals beyond the bounds of time. As science historian Ernst Peter Fischer remarks with great enthusiasm, when most of the world around us is unseen, to depict it is to invent it. Here's an exhilarating chance to catch up with a brilliant artist's inventions.

Production company: Ambrosia Film
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber
Screenwriter-director: Halina Dyrschka
Producers: Eva Illmer, Halina Dyrschka
Executive producers: Alexandra Dewart, Manfred Dyrschka, Halina Dyrschka, Eva Illmer
Directors of photography: Alicja Pahl, Luana Knipfer
Editors: Antje Lass, Mario Orias, Halina Dyrschka
Production designer: Susanne Dieringer
Costume designer: Lea Sovso
Composer: Damian Scholl

In English, German and Swedish
94 minutes