Hilma af Klint: Beyond the Visible, 2020

Jane and Kimberly stroll awe-struck through the spiritual abstracts of a female painter who was way ahead of her time – Hilma af Klint.

JAS & KC:  Who is Hilma af Klint?  What makes a not-very-well-known Swedish artist from a hundred years ago special and different, to be thought of in the same breath as modern artists?  Perhaps modern art all started with sparks of spirituality but it was Hilma af Klint (now recognized to have gotten there before Kandinsky in 1906) who infused abstract paintings with a palpable feeling of spiritual joy.  We now also recognize her visions as congruent with scientific discoveries such as atoms and Einstein’s invisible findings of gravitational waves and particles in light. When her paintings were shown in LACMA’s 1986 Abstract Art exhibit, William Wilson reflected, “Her spontaneous forms…argue for an essential spirituality of the forms themselves.” It is this magic that captured us, brought her to our attention as an artist for sure but also as a woman whose art suggests that she herself was a rather pure form of feminine emergence.  She broke away from representational painting and illustrations (excellent by the way) to explore metaphysical visions that were coming to her at the turn of the 20th century.  We don’t really know how she painted but, re-enacted in the documentary, she’s painting on large, wrinkly paper with wide house-paint brushes, scurrying around the floor as if to keep up with visions she’s translating. Almost like a lens not yet invented, Klint, as an artist, seems to make visible the underlying nature we all live within.    

JAS: Weren’t we interested in her before the documentary? 

KC: I think it was the exhibit at the Guggenheim.  One of us saw a review of it and when we discovered the documentary coming out, we made a date to watch it. (available on Kino Now) I think it’s how happy Klint’s art is that caught our interest, a lightness we thought may have gotten her dismissed in the art world of her time.  And we both liked the way her art seems to reference something otherworldly.  We were delighted about the documentary because it makes her more ‘now’ and more accessible to people who want to know more about an extraordinary woman.

JAS: If I were asked to describe what kept me interested in a word, I’d say it’s her ability to express the sheer pleasure of discovery. I think I know that feeling and  would’ve loved to go to that Guggenheim exhibit last year.  Every time I think about what I want to say about her, the word ‘discovery’ pops into my mind. She was not discovered in her own time, definitely not in what we might consider her prime years of making art, 1906-1914. I would venture to say that modern art by men and defined by men of that time made it virtually impossible for her art to be seen, much less exhibited.  I almost mean ‘to be seen’ literally.  No doubt the male dominated world of art did not recognize her paintings as art much less as ‘modern art’, something new bringing awareness to how we, we as humans, are seeing in new ways.  We began seeing the forms behind portraits, scenic representations and objects in motion.  Artists were capturing a new way of seeing and we were loving it.  But Klint discovered yet another way of seeing, one that was just making its way into our consciousness via science.  And she was painting her visions because she was an artist – her early portraiture, scenic and illustration work show her expertise.  When she painted these new forms, I believe she was truly making the invisible visible.  And no one saw them for the breakthrough art they were.  In fact hardly anyone saw them at all. 

KC:  I was completely bowled over by her paintings. Clearly she had technical acumen and you could see this in her schoolwork, rather traditional portraits and studies, but when she began to create works that mirrored the discoveries that were happening in science at the time, the connection between inner and outer life, between physical and spiritual existence, between earth and heaven, between religion and quantum physics, when all these relationships were just being born. I feel like she brought forth an incredible genius. I felt like she had a pure channel to the invisible and she was showing us what that was … a link between the literal and the abstract in ways that had not been seen before her work. One painting series, The Swan, really demonstrated this for me. The first piece is a swan looking at its own reflection in a lake. Then it morphs into abstract shapes of symmetry. Then it morphs into a myriad other things while all looking like they came from the exact same seed. From literal subjects to geometric compositions. She was brilliant.

JAS: At first you and I put off including Hilma af Klint as an artist for Double Mirror because it would be so hard to see her work.  Readers couldn’t get a real sense of her.  Then we discovered Halina Dyrschka’s documentary, Beyond the Visible! Now we could properly ‘discover’ her art.  Oddly she became even more easily available to us because Covid-19 has led to art house theaters with a limited-distribution doc like Beyond the Visible available for streaming!  (use Kino Now) The documentary makes Hilma af Klint’s art visible and her art is, here’s that word again, a discovery for the ages.  I can’t get it out of my mind.  Dyrschka does Klint justice.  She walks us into exhibitions of Klint’s art in exhibition at MOMA in 1989 and through the unexpected blockbuster hit at the Guggenheim in 2019 so we virtually experience being surrounded by Hilma’s ten-foot-high paintings revealing her visions of another world.  At first, I could feel my male art-dominated eye resist her joyful difference from Kandinsky, Modrian and other established male modern artists.  Then I felt myself melt, become liquid and float weightlessly into the other world Klint must have been experiencing.  What a gift that she could make it real for us. 

KC: Maybe she is timely now as the world is opening to the equal consideration of women in art history married with the fact that her subject matter is going through another groundbreaking phase right now with the bonds between science and religion becoming ever more evident and not as controversial as they once might have seen. I found it interesting that in the documentary it was stated that the world Hilma lived in had no problem with a woman being a priestess but as an artist, forbidden and taboo! It seems like it would be the opposite today. In any case, I am glad she is getting her audience due now.

JAS: Dyrschka’s doc is one of those rare docs where the artist’s work steals center stage from the artist.  It’s not her life but her work that fills the screen and makes clear the point of the documentary – in plain sight, her work was barely seen.  And because she left the paintings to her nephew with a caveat in her will that her work not be sold or shown until twenty years after her death, it was not until 1986 that a museum took serious interest in her. Los Angeles County Museum of Art included her in their 1986 exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985 to open LACMA’s new modern art building.  Clearly, Kandinsky wanted modern art to be an experience. And Hilma af Klint, like Ginger Rogers, did it backwards and in heels. In painting after painting, with a wide brush, on the floor with over-sized sheets of paper, she brought spiritual feeling to life in her abstract paintings. She made spirituality real, sensible and smart in abstract art and took modern art beyond the confines of the “it is what it is” type of explanations epitomized by Frank Stella. But after the exhibit, Hilma’s paintings went back into packing boxes and stayed there.  Sadly, she died in 1944 without a major exhibit.  The documentary searches her journals for clues but it’s her work that tells the story.  I’d say she knew she was too far ahead of her time to gain a place in the art world and simply preoccupied herself with making numinous forms visible.

KC: Putting the spiritual into art, yes, exactly. When Kandinsky did his similar paintings, it was more about abstraction, composition, placing man in the center of the universe, she brought the feminine to the mix. Her quartet about the stages of life really brought this home to me ….childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. It was interesting how she titled things or took human experiences and then connotated them with shapes and symbols. This is not to say that she didn’t also have the masculine in her life.  She wrote exhaustively in her journals and, like Michelangelo, made preliminary studies but she wasn’t expressing gender. She seemed to be tapping into a evolutionary energy behind our planetary existence.

JAS:  The doc does a great job bringing two Klint art-viewing experiences to life. First, using cinematic techniques to slip and slide from representational images to the forms-behind-the-forms behind them, the film captures the feeling of the shifting realities Klint was experiencing.  Second, similarly using cinematic techniques, the doc visually compares her visions to the discoveries of science – the interiors of an atom, the gravitational waves, and particles in light.  We flow through the comparisons and have the cinematic treat of experiencing discovery for ourselves.  We move from an ordinary seascape to an artistic representation of a seascape to an abstraction of the same seascape to a Klint drawing of painting palpably following the disappearance of one reality into another.  She’s entered a world that we’ve followed to the here and now in modern art. We easily share the O’Keefe, Van Gogh, Rothko, Andy Warhol, Krasner, or Pollack (pick your own) ease in slipping past boundaries of one reality to another.  Once I discovered the gifts of perception, I never went back.  I was forever forward afloat, much like we see in Klint’s paintings.  In terms of the self-creation themes we cover in Double Mirror, Klint is going behind the picture to mess with the molecules of perception. I might venture to say that she was messing with our minds at the turn of the last century and it just took us a while to catch up.  Another very effective presentation in the documentary that helps put Klint in the context of modern art is comparing certain of her paintings with those of Klee, Kandinsky, and Modrian.  Seeing is believing – she was doing it first!! 

KC: You say, “In terms of the self-creation themes we cover in Double Mirror, Klint is going behind the picture to mess with the molecules of perception. I might venture to say that she was messing with our minds at the turn of the last century and it just took us awhile to catch up. “ This is EXACTLY how I feel.

JAS:  One questioning thought kept poking at me while I was watching the film –  I’ve been touting the importance of a feminine presence coming into reality as a force in our culture for a long time – for sure, since 1990 when I wrote The Feminine Hero of The Silence of the Lambs.  But I was grounded in changing women’s identities, taking a place in society and making a difference in the male-dominated world we lived in. I didn’t really think of it as being a way of seeing that beckons us into another realm of appreciation for the miracle of life on our planet.  Did Hilma af Klint open that door?  Was she herself an atom blossoming in 1862 to bring us a gift of seeing the invisible? And feeling the joy of discovery, one more time – each time?    

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