In 1944, three important abstract painters died – Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Hilma af Klint. You‘ve probably heard of two of them. The other was a woman. This film makes the case for public recognition of the first person to create an abstract painting – 5 years before the Kandinsky painting that is usually attributed.
There are various reasons for af Klint’s relative lack of fame – she didn’t sell much in her lifetime and left most of her paintings in her will to a nephew, under the condition that it would be kept secret for 20 years. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, which is apparently the arbiter of which modern art is relevant, also claims that she never exhibited in her lifetime, but evidence is produced here that this is untrue.
But you can’t get around the fact that one of the main reasons that af Klint isn’t as renowned as her contemporaries is that she was a woman. And, as a number of experts pronounce here, while the visual arts may sometimes allow new people to the canon, they are very reluctant to rewrite the old books. So, if it is written that Kandinsky created abstract painting, so must it ever be, doubly so if his possible replacement had a vagina.
This is, then, a necessary film which rights an injustice. We are given a brief history of af Klint – born into a family of naval admirals – and see a number of her paintings. While they don’t do much for me, that’s not really the point. Towards the end of the film we’re shown film of heaving exhibitions in the past decade – 100 years after many of the exhibited pictures were originally painted.
To say that the film is necessary, though, doesn’t make it a good film. There’s only so many ways in which a talking head can say that af Klint deserves our recognition, and quite a few do in this film. I would have preferred a bit more context – of how her art related to and developed alongside that of contemporaries like Kandinsky. Although even this would run the risk of minimizing af Klint’s contribution and putting it in the shadow of more famous men.
But instead, we hear more about af Klint’s philosophy. Its hard to put it kindly, but it does seem to consist of a load of hippy bollocks. Af Klint was a Spiritist and Theosophist, so we hear more than we really need to about the spiritual dimension of her work and of the great significance of the letters W and U, and how, like, we’re just an atom within the huge cosmos, man.
Some of these theories affected her art. So, the colour yellow represents women and light blue represents men (it may have been the other was round, I wasn’t paying too much attention by this point). And as the world is divided into polar opposites like woman-man and day-night, there is an awful lot of yellow and pale blue in her painting. There are also a load of spirals, which stand for development apparently.
And this is something that I find it hard to get on board with. Art – and especially abstract art – is diminished if you need a glossary to understand it. I can accept that certain colours may have different effects on our mood – they may be harsher or more soothing perhaps, and can contain other connotative meaning – but if you want to say that this is because they have a specific definition, be that men and women or development, then maybe you should be writing a manual instead of painting (or indeed film making).
Besides which, Day and Night are not absolutes. What about dusk, and twilight and all sorts of other liminal gradations? So, I’m being asked to relate some paintings with an esoteric philosophy that doesn’t convince me, with a degree of literalism that feels like it reduces our understanding of the art.
These occasional forays into Spiritism do not dominate the film, in time at least, but I have the feeling that they turn up at all because the film – at just over 90 minutes – doesn’t really have enough material for its length. So, we’re told about af Klint, shown a few of her paintings, and are then left hanging around waiting for something else to happen.
There is a brief foray into a discussion about why so few female artists are exhibited – in general, and at the MOMA in particular. This is an important discussion, and we get to see a pertinent, but familiar, poster by the Guerilla Girls. But this seems to be just tacked on, and doesn’t tell us much more than we already know.
I hope that Beyond the Visible is successful, and that it leads to a more serious assessment of the works of Hilma af Klint, and indeed of many more female artists. I just had the feeling that this was a film for insiders – telling the people who are already aware that an injustice is happening, without making a real case for af Klint that will convince outsiders.
File under: worthy but a little bit dull