I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of abstract art
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I’m not much of a fan of abstract art, but I’ve just discovered an abstract artist whose work I adore. Huge canvases in colors simultaneously delicate and bold, with motifs geometric yet also somehow natural. These are enigmatic paintings, vaguely scientific, hinting at the secret world of atoms and molecules; but also organic, suggestive of flowers and jellyfish and other beautiful oddities of flora and fauna. There is duality in these images, and wisdom. Rather miraculously, this body of work is both rational and spiritual at the same time. The whole universe seems to be contained herein, all its wonders and mysteries. I’m astonished by the beauty of these works, and deeply moved and inspired by them like I never have been before by abstract imagery.
Oddly enough, the entire world is only just discovering this artist, even though she has been dead for almost 80 years. How is that even possible? The clue is in the pronoun: she. Swedish visionary Hilma af Klint was a pioneering artist who was way ahead of her time. She didn’t merely create stunning works of abstract art: she invented abstract art. Her first abstract canvas is dated 1906, four years before Wassily Kandinsky’s, who is still generally considered the earliest abstract painter.
Again, how is this possible? Because the achievements of women are regularly erased in the annals of history, which have been written by men, even when — perhaps especially when — a woman did big important groundbreaking things before a man did. This is nothing new to anyone who has been paying attention, and nothing new to feminism, which is constantly rediscovering and rehabilitating the accomplishments of women (and then has to do it again 25 years later, when the rehabilitation doesn’t stick). But it is never not wholly enraging. (See also: last year’s Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, the documentary about the person who invented narrative filmmaking, who happened to be a woman and so has been erased from history.)
Anyway, herewith Beyond the Visible, the feature debut of German filmmaker Halina Dyrschka, which gives you the whole sorry yet thrilling tale of Hilma af Klint. This is the sort of documentary in which experts enthuse over extraordinary canvases and exclaim that art history is in “upheaval” and “has to be rewritten,” and yet shares their despair that that may not actually happen even though this movie is trying to do just that. I love how Dyrschka juxtaposes af Klint’s work with later, sometimes decades later, work by men considered revolutionary geniuses of conceptual, nonrepresentational art — Kandinsky, of course, who may have in fact straight up stolen from her; Albers; Klee; Mondrian; Warhol! — in a way that drips with quiet visual sarcasm, a “can you believe this shit” sort of exasperation. Dyrschka and her on-camera experts also have major side-eye for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has literally written the history on abstract art, and continues to insist that, you know, maybe af Klint wasn’t really all that important a voice after all?
Af Klint’s work, which looks startlingly modern more than a century after its creation, is finally beginning to be seen and contemplated: an exhibition last year of her canvases at New York’s Guggenheim broke attendance records. But can af Klint’s work matter in a paradigm that continues to insist that women are, by very dint of our gender, incapable of “genius,” and in which art is only “important” if it is profitable in an overheated market that puts a seven-figure price tag on a work? Beyond the Visible is a call to smash such “values” that consider art via capitalistic, dick-measuring modes, and for that alone, it is a refreshing work of rebellion in itself.
But this is also a deeply engaging portrait of a woman who lived life on her own terms at a time when options for women were even more limited than they are now; who understood and seems to have accepted — albeit perhaps reluctantly — that her work would be ignored; who looked at the great movements of her time, both scientific and philosophical, and tried to integrate them in her own mind and outlook. Af Klint’s work is all about exploring the intersections of arcane knowledge about the universe — she was a contemporary of Marie Curie, whose work was fostering radical shifts in our understanding of the natural world — and a desire to cling to the numinous, as via the spiritual movement of theosophy, as Western culture began to move away from traditional religion. There is nothing in either that esteems money or fame. Which is why, perhaps, as we are living through further dramatic paradigm shifts right now, in 2020, her work feels so extraordinary, and her vision so necessary.
Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for April 17th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.
Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint is enjoying a virtual release in the UK, via Modern Films. Visit the film’s official site for streaming options that support local arthouse cinemas. (Also playing in some bricks-and-mortar cinemas.)