More than 600,000 people saw the Guggenheim Museum’s Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future exhibition in 2019 — an impressive turnout for a solo show by a reclusive and largely unknown Swedish painter who died in 1944, and whose most important works were not exhibited anywhere until the mid-1980s. But such is the magic of her work and the mystery of her life, that as soon as it appeared in the world it caught fire for whole new generations. Now a new documentary on her life and art opens wide (aka on-demand) this week, setting the record straight and making an airtight case for af Klint’s ascension to an elevated place in art history.
On the surface, the story of a pioneering abstractionist working in the first decade of the 20th century, who as a woman in man’s world found no recognition in her lifetime and was all but forgotten by art history, experiencing a sudden, almost worshipful explosion of appreciation and study of her art and ideas is already compelling enough for a solid documentary. But Beyond the Visible goes far deeper than the surface — exploring not only more elusive elements of her personal story, but also the central role of af Klint’s abiding interests in modern science and transcendental spirituality in the urgency of her visionary ideas.
Hilma af Klint made works in 1906 that responded to both the wonderment of atomic physics and the naturalist orientation of Europe’s popular Theosophy movement. She was acutely fascinated with the idea that an artist could be empowered to give visible, tangible form to the unseen forces and particles of light and matter. She studied and succeeded in conventional academic traditions early on, but the work that defined her career was scandalously avant-garde, and despite the transcription of many thousands of notebooks worth of notes and philosophical treatises, kept almost entirely a secret until, by her own decree, many years after her death.
Director Halina Dryschka’s documentary calls on an engaging array of curators, authors, artists, art historians, science experts, and af Klint’s family and heirs to explain the events of her life, especially the factors that have until recently excluded her from the canon. But the film as a piece of cinema itself is also a gorgeous thing, with plentiful landscapes, establishing shots and nuanced studio reenactment sequences all shot with luminous, sensitive and painterly cinematography by Alicja Pahl and Luana Knipfer.
Overall, the film excels at both contextualizing the artist’s intentions and circumstances as well as at analyzing the power and meaning of the work itself. In both large-scale works speaking to celestial and subatomic fractal structures, and small-scale works examining the power of single gestures and activated palettes, af Klint favors tendrils, rays, chromatic spectrums, circles both perfect and broken, curvilinear biomorphic abstract shapes, and the unseen architectural crossbeams undergirding all that we see. Her work’s purpose was removing the veil of sight to access more fundamental truths about the mystical nature of the universe. But they are also heavenly to look at.