One of the many brilliantly realized scenes in Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women – the first to truly highlight how unkind the world is to ambitious girls, in both the nineteenth century and the twenty-first – involves Amy March (played by Florence Pugh) describing her reasons for giving up her dreams of being a great painter to Laurie (played by Timothee Chalamet). According to Amy, “Talent isn’t genius. And no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing.” Laurie’s response to her feels snarky, yet there is also an unpleasant edge of the truth to it: “What women are allowed into the club of geniuses, anyway?” he asks.
It’s a question that, when removed from the film’s period setting to the present day, loses none of its potency. Women, then and now, are often unable to break into the club of geniuses dominated by men; no matter how brilliant these women are, there is always something – in short, the patriarchy – holding their work back from being recognized as such. One such woman was Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter whose work predated that of the better-known Wassily Kandinsky in essentially inventing abstract art. Yet her groundbreaking works were barely seen during her lifetime and kept out of modern retrospectives of the movement as a result.
Inside the Invisible Realm
Director Halina Dyrschka’s new documentary, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, seeks to undo a century’s worth of erasure. The film delves deep into Af Klint’s life, work and influences while also exploring how the male-dominated art world kept her and others like her from receiving the recognition they deserved. As art collector Valeria Napoleone, one of many women from the art world featured in the film, aptly notes, “Art history is a men’s suit. The fiber is men, and women are added as decoration.” Redressing these wrongs is a worthy endeavor, even if the film itself does not live up to the greatness of its subject.
Hilma af Klint grew up in a well-to-do family of Swedish naval officers before being accepted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the age of twenty. Her natural talent enabled her to graduate with honors and be awarded a studio in the cultural center of Stockholm. Here, she hobnobbed with all kinds of creatives and earned a living through portrait and landscape painting.
As Amy March so aptly notes, talent is not genius. But Hilma af Klint had both. Major discoveries in the “invisible realm” of science, including radio waves and quantum theory, influenced her thinking and led her to create artworks that attempted to render the invisible visible in some way. She and a small group of other women artists, known as The Five, became heavily involved in spiritualism and Theosophy, engaging in seances and other paranormal activities. Her resulting works, driven by visions and other spiritual forces Af Klint claimed she was unable to control, are masterpieces of abstract art before abstract art was even a concept, visions of color, line, and shape that stretch the boundaries of your imagination.
Bringing Masterpieces to Light
The abstract works of Af Klint were not prominently showcased during her lifetime, and she ordered her heir, a nephew, to not reveal them to the world until at least 20 years after her death. When her paintings were finally made public, the loftiest citadels of modern art — including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Sweden’s Moderna Museet — declined to show her work, arguing that because she did not show these pieces at the same time as her contemporaries Kandinsky and Mondrian, her work could not stand alongside theirs in any retrospective of the era. That some of her artwork was said to have been the result of visions didn’t help convince them it was worthy, the argument being that if she wasn’t even aware of what she was creating, does she even deserve credit for it?
The position that Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint takes is that these closed-minded attitudes, which served to keep Af Klint’s work from receiving proper acclaim for additional decades after her death, stem from the patriarchy’s hamfisted control of the art world, something that is only now loosening. After all, if art during her life had not been so male-dominated, Af Klint could have shown her work while she was still alive. However, because men held all of the power and deemed women artists capable of little more than naturalistic replication, she could not. Because men still hold the majority of the power, they then decided that this fact automatically made her work unworthy of being displayed alongside that of men whose work hers not only precedes but exceeds in its trailblazing qualities.
The critics, collectors and historians who feature in the film — and who are predominantly women — all exhibit primal anger at this injustice, one that is impossible with which to argue, especially when their remarks are showcased alongside images of some of Af Klint’s greatest works. And yet, the film itself, despite being a portrait of a groundbreaking artist, is surprisingly pedestrian in its structure and style. It relies on talking heads mixed with some good old fashioned recreations of Af Klint in her studio and, of course, Af Klint’s work.
Beyond the Visible: Conclusion
While Af Klint’s work was unlike anything that came before her, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint tells the story of her life and work in a paint-by-numbers style that would be boring if not for the fascinating content at its center. One is left wondering what Af Klint’s story could have been like if told in an equally experimental manner as her art. Nonetheless, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint reminds us that just because we do not yet know them, does not mean that there are not more than enough women artists to entirely populate their own club of geniuses — and that in itself makes the film worthwhile.
What do you think? Are you familiar with the works of Hilma af Klint? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint will be released in the U.S. on April 10, 2020. You can find more international release dates here.
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