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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.
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.
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.