Why did Hilma af Klint elude art history for so long

A new Hilma af Klint documentary traces the extraordinary story of the mystical artist who invented abstract painting

A scene in Beyond the Visible, a film by Halina Dyrschka, showing Hilma af Klint's paintings

The visionary Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was a pioneering abstract painter, but her place in the art history books is only now being assured. The first major step in cementing her legacy was the blockbuster 2019 exhibition at the Guggenheim, and now, a new documentary film coming out this week, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, is the latest attempt to chronicle her contributions to abstract art.

Hilma af Klint began creating her colorful, spiritually guided canvases in 1906 - five years before Wassily Kandinsky made his first abstract work - yet she was all but forgotten after her death. That was partly by her own design - her will prohibit the exhibition of her work for decades - but it is also symptomatic of a larger tendency in art history to under-recognise the accomplishments of women artists. In this case, neglecting to acknowledge the primacy of af Klint is a massive omission from perhaps the most important artistic development of the 20th century.

It was in 1936, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York mapped the whole history of abstraction - literally. The catalogue for “Cubism and Abstraction,” a major show that year, featured on its cover a diagram rendering how Post-Impressionism gave rise to Cubism, which then led to Suprematism, Constructivism, and so on and so forth. The exhibition’s purview was problematic for a number of reasons: Save for the unbilled African creators of sculptures included as reference points for certain kinds of Western abstraction, all of the artists were white. And then all but three of them were men. There was Robert Delaunay, but not Sonia Delaunay; Hans Arp, but not Sophie Taeuber-Arp; Alfred Stieglitz, but not Georgia O’Keeffe; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, but not Lucia Moholy-Nagy; Pablo Picasso, but not Dora Maar

The show’s myopic view continued to inform the history of abstraction - even after MoMA attempted to revise it with a 2012 exhibition revisiting that prior survey. And one of the many figures who should have been included - especially with the luxury of retrospect - is Hilma af Klint, whose abstraction painting practice was intended to commune with altered states of being. 

“If you compare her to the supposed genius men, their steps toward abstraction were very timid,” says artist Josiah McElheny in the film’s trailer. “In order to tell the history of abstraction, now you have to rewrite it, because basically all the people who said ‘it happened this year,’ well no, it didn’t.” (In 2011, McElheny incorporated historical works by artists including Klint into his solo show at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.)

Now, the new documentary film coming out this week, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, is the latest attempt to chronicle her contributions to abstract art. The film’s director, Halina Dyrschka, first discovered af Klint in 2013, in a newspaper article about the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction,” which originated at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. Dyrschka saw the show when it traveled to Berlin, and was blown away by the artist’s work.

“I almost felt personally insulted when I read that this was a new discovery and the paintings have been hidden for decades,” she said in a statement. “Who would be interested in marginalising this artist’s accomplishments? And why?”

What Dyrschka found was that the art establishment has long been content with a male-dominated narrative that overlooked a pioneering woman artist. As recently as 2013, a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art titled “Inventing Abstraction: 1910–1925” deigned even a mention of af Klint.

“Hilma af Klint would cause such an upheaval in art history, that some would say ‘It’s better to leave her outside,'” says art critic and historian Julia Voss in the movie’s trailer.

And yet, the rediscovery of af Klint’s work has been hailed around the world, her practice resonating with audiences and breaking attendance records at the Guggenheim. Now, her journey of rediscovery can be followed in film form. Coming into the world one year after the Guggenheim Museum’s “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” show drew a record-setting 600,000 visitors in New York, Beyond the Visible acts as a useful guide to the artist’s work, with a special emphasis on her biography. It traces the start of her career at Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, where af Klint began pushing against art-historical norms early on (an archivist points out that she drew nude male models - a no-no at the time), and continues following her artistic growth until she arrives upon a devotion to complete abstraction. There are stops along the way to consider her spirituality - an avowed Theosophist, af Klint formed the Five, a group that regularly held séances to commune with other worlds - and to revel in the majesty of some of af Klint’s more bizarre artworks, which feature twisting circles, swans that touch noses, wild wavy lines, and surreal swatches of color..

The movie can be accessed online via theaters across the country beginning 17 April.

“It is more than time,” said Dyrschka, “to tell the untold heroine stories.”

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