Despite the way it is presented to us in museums and textbooks, art history must constantly be rewritten. There are certain stories we take for granted when we talk about modern art, usually with the assumption that a long patriarchal lineage of artists carries history forwards. Vassily Kandinsky, for example, is almost universally accepted as the “first abstract painter.” What does it mean then, asks the new documentary Beyond the Visible- Hilma af Klint, directed by Halina Dyrschka, that a woman painter working in Sweden at the beginning of the twentieth century was creating abstract work years before Kandinsky? Does it render the old story obsolete?
The Museum of Modern Art, considered to be a foremost authority on the art of the 20th century, answered the latter question with a resounding “no.” A woman artist, with no art on the market, and none in their collection, simply could not be allowed to challenge their account. Hilma af Klint was clearly an “abstract artist,” in the way that almost anyone would understand the term, and yet she did not fit the narrative that major institutions subscribed to. Sadly, the MoMA's attitude towards af Klint's work has been representative of much of the art world, and so, she fell between the cracks.
In a sequence of images of af Klint’s paintings alongside the work of male artists throughout the 20th century, from Kandinsky and Mondrian all the way to Twombly and even Warhol, the resemblance between the works is striking, even as af Klint’s predates most of them by decades. It is impossible not to wonder how these other artists have been presented as integral to the story of 20th-century art, while af Klint was nearly forgotten. The film also astutely points out the timidity with which many male painters approached abstraction, in contrast with af Klint’s bold experimentation.
Even the short paragraph that af Klint has been allowed in the history of modern art is shown to need revising. The conventional narrative tells us she never showed her work during her life, but a postcard from 1928 shows that this understanding of her story is incomplete. In fact, she certainly had an exhibition of some sort in London that year, but unfortunately few details are known. We are left with much to speculate on; for example, the fact that photos of af Klint’s work could easily have been viewed by Kandinsky, perhaps inspiring him in his early experiments with abstraction.
Although af Klint’s work is still just as remarkable today, it is helpful to see it placed in its historical context. Of course, no great artist, regardless of talent or vision, appears out of nowhere. She was working in the early 1900s, as scientific breakthroughs were being made that would profoundly change our perception of the world. The discoveries of the radio wave and the x-ray, for example, along with quantum theory and the theory of relativity, revealed that much of reality is invisible to us. Discovery, at this point in history, came to mean creation. To comprehend the invisible, visionary minds would have to invent new ways to see. Hilma af Klint was one of the few who were equal to this monumental task.
Af Klint approached this radical creation through the lens of theosophy, a religion that emphasizes communication with God through mystical insight, as well as through the séances she conducted with a group of other women known as The Five, to reveal an ecstatic truth of being. These practices not only allowed for the melding of the scientific and the spiritual in her paintings but also gave her a philosophical standpoint from which to approach the work she set out to do, allowing her to develop a unique way of seeing and understanding the world.
Af Klint’s paintings, with their brilliant colors and astrological and alchemical symbols, put the human in dialogue with the divine, and the scientific with the spiritual, bringing the invisible and the transcendental into our range of vision. She confronted one of the most ancient and profound questions facing not only artists but humankind: that of our place in the universe. Although the alabaster temple she envisioned for them was never built, a confrontation with these works is overwhelming even now, and must’ve been truly shocking in the years of their creation.
Beyond the Visible ties af Klint’s struggle to be understood during her lifetime to her ongoing undervaluation today, and to the wider struggle of contemporary women artists, exposing the institutional barriers that persist to this day. In af Klint’s time, it was abnormal for a woman to remain unmarried and pursue a career as an artist, a path af Klint described as her “destiny.” Even now, however, years after these barriers have supposedly been broken, women artists remain in the minority in museums around the world, despite making up the majority of students at art schools. As a compelling examination of af Klint’s life and art that also reveals the hypocrisy of institutions and the art market, Beyond the Visible succeeds in bringing the work of an artist who could be considered the pioneering abstract painter another step out of the shadows.