Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint was sort of like the Emily Dickinson of abstract painting, except she was the first artist to ever do it. Her first abstract paintings erupted into the world fully formed, predating Kandinsky’s more hesitant experiments by several years. Cineastes will also know her as the artist who interests Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. Her art is boldly colorful, but the presentation is a bit sedate throughout Halina Dryschka’s documentary profile, Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, which opens “virtually” this Friday.

Dryschka and her on-screen experts do a nice job establishing af Klint’s influences, science and spiritualism, as well as explaining why that was not as contradictory as it sounds today. Of course, the latter is what made the artist such a perfect fit for Personal Shopper. At times, she claimed her paintings just flowed through her, much like the automatic writing of Chico Xavier. She was even a member of a séance circle called “The Five,” so eventually someone is bound to produce a straight-up Hilma af Klint horror movie (can’t wait). However, her personal life was quiet to the point of being cloistered, but at least she apparently had one great, relatively reciprocal love of her life.

Visible scores a real coup uncovering a hitherto unknown 1928 exhibition of af Klint’s abstract paintings in London, when the conventional wisdom held that only a handful of her early academic paintings received any kind of public showing. On the other hand, all the talking heads wildly overstate their arguments regarding the perniciousness of the art-world’s so-called “patriarchy” and the crass commercialism of the art market. Yes, there are many more examples of men who found fame in the art world than women, but somehow Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt still eclipsed nearly all of their colleagues.

At times, Visible also reaches for poetic lyricism, but sounds rather pretentious instead. Frankly, the strongest asset the film has are af Klint’s paintings themselves. Her use of color is striking, as is her sense of composition. Unlike some works of abstraction, her oeuvre looks like it would be easy to “live with,” not that is a realistic option. Yet, in biographical and cultural terms, one of the best comparative artists might be Clyfford Still. Both artists’ fame is largely posthumous, but they each mandated terms in their wills that have kept their respective bodies of work largely in-tact. Still, most viewers would give af Klint the clear aesthetic advantage.

Visible will have you completely convinced regarding af Klint’s merits as an artist, but its merits as a film are another matter entirely. It is safe to say the rhythm of the film is rather languid. It is what we have now, so it is a handy way to see a lot of her work in one sitting, but it should be safe to predict her story will be told many more times in the future. Recommended for the “Exhibition on Screen”-style visuals (if you can tune out the talky commentators), Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint opens virtually through Kino Marquee, in conjunction with BAM in Brooklyn, this Friday (4/17).