Documenting a Pioneer of Abstraction.



Art history must be rewritten”.  Take that, gallery establishment and everyone who’s gotten through Art History courses.  The pronouncement arrives in and around the very intriguing new documentary film, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint. And, it makes the case quite effectively.

Hilma af Klint, for the uninitiated, was a versatile and downright visionary Swedish artist primarily known for her oversized abstract paintings.  In fact, well before the term “abstract artist” was ever coined, af Klint was furiously generating monumental work from the depths of her soul and spirit.  Her abstract work (which is merely a portion of her considerable output) is at once mind-bending, big– cumbersome to handle and store, wildly colorful, mysterious, dreamlike, and invitingly transcendent.  Informed by science, design skill, and her deeply held mystic theosophy (not at all uncommon among the intellectual set of her day), af Klint left behind a heretofore unreconciled body of work (also including volumes of handwritten journals) that must be contended with.  Most of it miraculously survives intact and is featured reverently in this film.

Af Klint operated in the years and decades just after the turn of the twentieth century, but never got her proper due in art history.  There’s evidence enough to place her before very start of the abstractionist movement, effectively taking the wind out of the sails of celebrated abstract art pioneers such as Wassily Kandinsky.  (Who is said to have literally made the scene a good decade after af Klint created stunningly similar work.  The film provides side-by-side comparisons of af Klint to Kandinsky as well as many other major artists, including Warhol.)

So… have you ever heard of Hilma af Klint?  I’ll be very honest; I had never heard of her until I learned of this film.  Nor had I ever heard of the film’s director, Halina Dyrschka.  Even close acquaintances more plugged into the art world than I did not know who af Klint was.  It occurred to me that Dyrschka, being a first-time filmmaker with literally zero other credits, might be looking to make a name for herself by cooking up one honey of a mockumentary.  After all, the premise of Beyond the Visible boils down to af Klint having been on the cutting edge of nearly every art movement from abstraction to Warhol, but not known until recently.  It’s not at all unlike Peter Jackson’s early career lark, the elaborate mockumentary Forgotten Silver.  That film sings phony praises of a New Zealand filmmaking pioneer who, along the way to his disappearance, Forrest Gump-ed his way through inadvertently innovating every major develop in cinema, and a few minor ones too.  The sheer volume of things that Jackson’s fictional character was said to have been responsible for was ultimately both Forgotten Silver’s greatest gag and its primary tell.  Looking at the trailer for Beyond the Visible, one can’t be blamed for picking up a Forgotten Silver vibe.

Except this time, it’s real- quick and basic web searches reveal that much.  Af Klint has been no secret for some time now.  So why, then, must “art history be rewritten”?   Dyrschka posits that although a number of factors have played into the artist’s relative obscurity (her nationality, the groundbreaking nature of much of her work, the diversity of form among the whole of it, the collective failure to promote her, her hardcore mystic beliefs that often permeated her painting), standard-issue gender discrimination outweighs them all.  Beyond the Visible is quite clear if not overbearing on the point that in her day, women were simply not accepted as major artists.  Like most any other aspect of canonical history, the history of art is highly patriarchal.  Some of af Klint’s heartbreaking gallery dismissals both prior to and after her death, are recounted in the film’s many interviews.  

Among the interviewed are artist/sculptor Josiah McElheny, the German journalist and scientific historian Julia Voss, several of af Klint’s surviving descendants, and additional historical, cultural, and artistic experts.  Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of this Zeitgeist Films release is a fine presentation, one that devotees of both fine art and quality documentary filmmaking will want on their shelves.  In addition to the film itself, it offers a few deleted/extended scenes and even a couple eye-opening uncut interviews with key participants.  There’s also an eight-plus-minute still gallery of af Klint’s work, which on its own makes the case for her retroactive canonization.

Hilma af Klint

Within the very essence of Beyond the Visible, there is a needed and thoroughly justified mission to make the case for af Klint as the ingenious forebearer which she is explained to be.  Dyrschka goes so far to posit that Kandinsky himself was inspired by af Klint’s large-scale work, as an important mutual acquaintance had them in his possession at the time of one of their correspondences.  In so doing, the game of historical Jenga is officially on, as the future of who innovated what in the world of art and art history has been irrevocably challenged.  Though reconsideration is never easy (a lot of books and PowerPoint presentations are rendered obsolete), this is great progress, as today the world begins to wake up to the fact that half its populace has been suppressed across the board for centuries.  And for what?  

Beyond the Visible, with its languid flow of talking-head interviews and methodically studied stills of artwork, feels ironically transgressive in terms of documentary formalism.  But in forsaking the trendy uses of slam-bang transitions and animation, Dyrschka demonstrates a back-to-basics approach that suits the century-ago subject matter.  This is a new filmmaker who is not afraid to slow down and meditate on her material, and in so doing, she requires the same of the viewer.  Only then can we collectively bask in the lessons and quiet celebration of Hilma af Klint- an invisible light from an invisible source of great and profound spiritual mystery.