In all of my 10-plus years of going to art museums and galleries in New York City, I had never seen anything quite like the canvases displayed in the Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in January 2019. Here was a true visionary, forward-thinking artist exploring the expressive possibilities of abstraction at around the turn of the 20th century, decades before abstract expressionism movement in the post-World War II years. But even more dazzling than seeing a heretofore-unknown pioneer of art history being unveiled before my very eyes were the artworks themselves. Who knew mere colors and shapes could convey so much spiritual fervor?
At least, I imagine Hilma af Klint was heretofore unknown to most people who saw those works at the Guggenheim. In fact, my interest in the exhibit had been sparked back in the fall of 2016 when I saw Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper at the New York Film Festival. In this oddball ghost story, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper-cum-medium, who is dealing with her twin brother’s untimely death, becomes obsessed with the work of af Klint. Though Assayas does allude briefly to af Klint’s own mystical beliefs, the thematic connection only became blindingly obvious to me upon seeing the exhibit at the Guggenheim.
The life and art of Hilma af Klint is about to make its second major, much more detailed and intensive appearance in a new documentary, “Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint.” Halina Dyrschka’s film will be released this coming Friday, April 17, not in theaters—most, if not all movie theaters across the country are closed now because of the coronavirus—but virtually, available to stream through select art-house theaters. (Click here to see release dates and venues.)
For those who missed the Guggenheim exhibit or even the much-earlier Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction exhibit that traveled throughout Europe from 2013-15, Dyrschka’s documentary offers a gratifyingly detailed look at her life and work, with generous helpings of her canvases shown onscreen. Granted that there’s nothing like seeing, say, her “Ten Largest” series up close…but given that barely any art museums are open these days, seeing them on as large a screen as possible through this film is the only legitimate option at this point. Even with that caveat in mind, though, “Beyond the Visible“ works not only as a reasonable substitute for seeing the exhibit but also as an art appreciation course in its own right, with many artists and art critics appearing onscreen offering their perspectives on af Klint’s work and its importance in art history. On the filmmaking front, Dyrschka also makes some clever visual connections between af Klint’s canvases and their real-world analogs—most memorably cutting between one of af Klint’s spirals and a similar pattern on the shell of a snail.
But “Beyond the Visible“ has something to offer even those who did see af Klint’s work at the Guggenheim. At the very least, depending on how you responded to af Klint’s art, the film could function as a nostalgia trip of sorts, reminding you of that memorable artistic experience you had a while back. Such a trigger will surely be doubly appealing for many during a time when most people are not even allowed to leave their homes under the state-mandated shelter-in-place orders.
Its nostalgic appeal runs even deeper than that, however. One of the most thrilling aspects of the Guggenheim exhibit lay in the sense of seeing art history rewritten, seeing canvases that predated Vasiliy Kandinsky’s geometric abstractions. “Beyond the Visible“ highlights the fact that a woman created works of art that were truly ahead of their time and yet didn’t receive acclaim for it until decades after her death in 1944; it plays up the patriarchal ignorance of the artist’s oeuvre during her lifetime in ways that speak potently to the current era of #MeToo.
But beyond just suggesting a rewrite of art history to give an unheralded female pioneer her due, Hilma af Klint: Paintings of the Future, on a broader level, reminded us that discoveries are still possible in the art world. It’s easy to forget that, especially now, as the world around us seems to be falling apart and we’re all stuck in our homes. But the worst of this will eventually be over, and we will once again be allowed to go outside. If Hilma af Klint’s art, and by extension “Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint,” implies anything, it’s that there is still plenty to discover not just in the art world, but in the world in general. This openness to nature is what kept af Klint herself, with her interest in both science and spirituality, going. And it will, inevitably, keep all of us going as we wait for the worst of this particularly debilitating health crisis to blow over. The end may not yet be visible, but this film beckons us to look beyond it with as much hope as we can muster.