From Beyond the Visible — Hilma af Klint (2020), dir. Halina Dyrschka (all images courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

The Guggenheim’s record-breaking 2018 Hilma af Klint retrospective should have put an end to any argument that af Klint, not Wassily Kandinsky, created the first works of abstract art. The exhibition shone a spotlight on an egregious error by academics and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, which had repeatedly failed to acknowledge af Klint’s achievements. History needed rewriting, with copious mea culpas issued. Yet progress has been suspiciously halting. Sensing something afoot, filmmaker Halina Dyrschka acts more like a detective than a biographer with her new documentary Beyond the Visible — Hilma af Klint.

Some clues around af Klint’s disappearance from the historical record are easily discernible. Dryshka covers the artist’s lifelong navigation of male spaces. Born in 1866 to an aristocratic lineage of naval officers, she showed an early interest in nature and science, but ultimately enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, a socially acceptable course for young unmarried women. At the same time she became involved with Spiritism, joining a group of female seance practitioners who partook in automatic drawing. Characteristic cursive shapes made their way into af Klint’s art and later Cy Twombly’s, as Dryshcka shows in a side-by-side comparison. In a convincing sequence, she presents a series of diptychs featuring af Klint’s work alongside that of Joseph Albers, Paul Klee, and Andy Warhol. Rather than accusing anyone of outright theft, she hints that genius is just as often inflated as it is overlooked. 

From Beyond the Visible — Hilma af Klint 

Af Klint drew from her experiences with Spiritism and interest in theosophy to enter a period of out-of-body productivity in 1906. It was during this time that she created her first abstract works, including the series “The Ten Largest,” elephantine paintings that portray the stages of life sensuously, with bold colors, shapes, and forms that exude sublime energy. Unsurprisingly, these paintings were unappreciated by her contemporaries, who disapproved of applying the third eye in art-making, or at least of women doing so. Rudolf Steiner, a leader in the theosophical movement whom af Klint deeply admired, was part of this chorus, and it was his condemnation that likely led to her first withdrawal from art, between 1908 and 1912. While af Klint ceased to paint, Steiner kept a collection of her work on display in his office. Fellow theosophist Kandinsky was known to have visited at least once during this time. 

Dyrschka unearths several more layers of the story. She investigates the lore that af Klint didn’t want her work displayed publicly. At least one documented instance contradicts this. In truth, af Klint didn’t want her work to be sold, and specified as such in her will. Suddenly, the case becomes clearer. Were af Klint to be rightfully recognized for her innovations, other artists whose work fetches millions at auctions might lose their mystique as iconoclasts and pioneers. That art dealers downplay af Klint’s contributions makes sense economically. It also begs the question of how many other visionaries’ work has been kept from the world so as not to disturb the sensibilities of the bidding one percent.

From Beyond the Visible — Hilma af Klint 

This is implied rather than stated in a film that’s otherwise gutsy. Beyond the Visible doesn’t adequately acknowledge erasure beyond af Klint, a wealthy woman of Western European descent. Thus, its final rallying cries to take advantage of “a window of opportunity” that opened in 2018 feel slightly less unifying and urgent than they should. Nonetheless, the message comes across by the singular strength of af Klint’s case. It shouldn’t take a blockbuster show at the Guggenheim to make art historians pick up their pens to make edits. That it has (and in some cases, hasn’t even yet) calls for a reexamination of how art history is recorded, and for whose benefit. 

Beyond the Visible — Hilma af Klint is available to stream via Kino Marquee.

Elizabeth Horkley is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Combining critical analysis with historical perspective, she aims to excavate cultural artifacts that have the power to enrich our understanding...

6 replies on “How Hilma af Klint Was Written Out of History”

  1. “Were af Klint to be rightfully recognized for her innovations, other artists whose work fetches millions at auctions might lose their mystique as iconoclasts and pioneers.”
    That is absurd!

      1. It would be a superficial reading of Kandinsky if we thought that his greatness could be lessened by acknowledging Hilma’s greatness.

        1. That depends on how many other works he copied and neglected to give credit where credit was due. I cant imagine this is the sole instance of this happening, which In turn puts his entire career in doubt. There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from another’s work, but claiming it as wholly your own cannot be justified, however, it can be rectified.

          1. Kandinsky copied and neglected to give credit where credit is due? That is unproven and extremely doubtful.

  2. I fully agree that Hilma af Klint was making abstract paintings prior to Kandinsky, but who actually made the first abstract painting is a much larger, more problematic, and maybe unanswerable question–does Tantric art from India qualify, do Robert Fludd’s alchemical black squares count, what about Kupka, etc.? The first time I heard about Hilma af Klint’s work was in 1986, from The Spiritual in Abstract Art catalog by Maurice Tuchman, companion to the sprawling LACMA exhibition. The public response to the Guggenheim exhibition was much larger, record breaking, completely unexpected, and absolutely amazing, but I don’t think Klint’s significant contribution to abstract art was entirely unknown to art historians prior to 2018. Kandinsky’s status as the first abstract painter had been in question for some time already.

    Also, I think the film’s side by side comparisons of paintings from different eras cheapens the entire project of 20th century abstraction. Are paintings of squares the same just because they look alike? As the Klimt vs. Albers comparison suggests? More absurdly, who invented the square first anyway? I have no doubt that Klint’s art was met with sexist bias, but making these superficial comparisons–weak homologies, or “pseudomorphisms”–is simplistic, and levels the individual accomplishments of each artist. Olga Rozanova painted vertical stripe paintings 30 years prior to Barnett Newman, does that mean Newman ripped her off, or imply a conspiracy based on auction results? I don’t like the way the film frames art as if it were some kind of boxing match, just as we were breaking away from the narrow teleological narrative of modern art.

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