‘Have you ever heard of Hilma af Klint?’ I asked my painter friend. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have mentioned her many times. A great artist. A Revolutionary.’
Regrettably, at the time I did not recall his mentioning her. I then went on to explain that witnessing a documentary on a subject is an entirely different experience from hearing one’s name. In fact, I even mistyped her name as Klimt, rather than Klint, and I shamefully wondered if she was related to Gustav. Oy!
I begin this essay admitting that I am not a painter and nor am I experienced enough with Abstract Expressionism to be able to render some sort of judgment on it, outside my limited purview. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have opinions.
I stumbled upon Halina Dyrschka’s 2019 documentary Beyond the Visible while surfing the Criterion Channel. Although I felt some initial trepidation due to the film’s labeling af Klint an Abstract Expressionist, (curious she might be another Rothko wannabe) how wrong I was. So, I went ahead with this both enjoyable and illuminating experience. Apparently, my not hearing of Hilma af Klint is nothing extraordinary. Nor have many, according to the documentary. Born in 1862 in Sweden, af Klint lived a quiet life, where she painted in private and withheld much of her work from public eye.
Although she made her living with her ‘natural drawing’ (such as illustrations used in veterinary textbooks), the very art for which she is most revered is that which shares a likeness to Henri Magritte—(or might I say that he more so likens to her, since she came first) in that both painters are metaphorical and idea driven. As example, there is a wonderful demonstration of her Swan Series, where we are shown both an evolution and succession of not just the swans themselves in ‘natural’ form (bent towards one another at their necks) but also the idea of swans via use of shapes and color. Perhaps her most famous is a white and blue circle on a red background, wherein the circles transpose their circular swan necks.
But this is not only what the documentary uncovers. Much the focus involves questioning the role of women within the art world and why are so many overlooked? Hilma af Klint was not just ‘any woman painter,’ but rather, someone with a vision who clearly was the first pioneer within this expression. It is fascinating to witness how much of her painting not just rivals the male artists, but rather overtakes them. Let us remember that she came before them: Kandinsky, Klee, Albers, Mondrian, and Warhol being a few.
So, why was she so overlooked? A few circumstances come into play. One is that she was not fully discovered until after her death, as per her request. (There is notation within her journals indicating that she did not wish her work to be shared until 20 years after her death.) Another fact is that art history would simply need to be rewritten, and perhaps such labor would come as an inconvenience. Hilma af Klint was a first and foremost—she was not a follower.
The documentary does an excellent showcasing of her various works, while an actress interpreting af Klint paints barefoot on the floor. And when the large, grand, and sweeping canvases are shown in a series, they are simply a fascinating opus to behold. Much of art interacts as complements to other works—almost a yin and yang approach. Think of Wallace Stevens’s succession of poems within his poem ‘Sunday Morning.’ While his poem stands as one poem, each individual piece plays off one another to build a singular poem. Much the same can be said of af Klint’s Swan Series, as well as her Ten Largest Paintings—Youth, Childhood, Adulthood. The fact that she gives her work such intriguing titles indicates that she placed much thought into her ideas, rather than lazily splotching paint on a canvas and calling it Untitled.
It has been said that history is written by the winners, but one could also argue that art history is written by and for men. Again, why is this? Why are ‘women painters’ merely delegated to landscapes and pretty portraits? (Much of this bias crosses over into the writing world, where women are expected to write romance, family saga or chick-lit—glorified soap opera.) One interviewee also mentions that af Klint does not generate revenue. Quite simply, she does not make the museums money. So, it is simply easier to not deal with her and to render her invisible. Only now, they can’t. Hilma af Klint has been found, and as the documentary’s title notes—she is Beyond the Visible. In fact, her story of posthumous discovery resonates much with street photographer Vivian Maier—an artist who worked as a nanny and ‘took photos on the side.’ Maier was, by divine luck, discovered when her negatives were purchased at auction. ‘We had no idea,’ her employers said, regarding her talent. And why would they? How easy it would have been to render these treasured negatives to the dumpster.
Beyond The Visible is an important documentary when one thinks in terms of art history. Viewers come to see that one’s reputation is not merely about impression, but rather, it is also about repression. Personally, I find that af Klint is closer to Magritte and Dali than she is to Rothko or Pollock. (And this is a good thing.) Perhaps one of the film’s most memorable moments is when a series of female painter names is flashed across the screen. Berthe Morisot, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner—just to name a few. Who would have thought that there is more to painting than Frida Kahlo?
Hilma af Klint died at the age of 82, leaving behind a prolific and creative legacy. Despite the weather and wear and heat and cold in her nephew’s storage, her paintings survived. Now, they can be found in the Guggenheim. But let this not be some sort of vindication. Rather, more attention must be given to works of quality by anyone—man, woman, and for all to not be so dismissive due to bias or convenience.
Hilma af Klint also participated in séances, which were incredibly popular in her time. One museum director learned this and rejected her work without so much as an examination. ‘He didn’t even look at it,’ one interviewee said. Any artist will personally know this rejection all too well. So did af Klint, albeit she was not alive to feel it. Yet another reason we must continue to wait for the Greats. The pictures were painted. They exist. Too often life and lifetimes get in the way. Go and find them. Then do as Wallace Stevens said in his poem, ‘Debris of Life and Mind’: ‘Speak of familiar things a while.’
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Halina Dyrschka’s Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint. Zeitgeist Films, 2019.
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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion on Edward P. Jones’s classic short story collection, “Lost in the City”.
More from Jessica Schneider: The Assertion of Character in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder”, Contained in Captivity – On Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” (Zerkalo), Early Glimmer: The Young Writer’s Potential As Seen In Joseph Cotter Seamon Jr.