There are two potential documentaries here kicking one another like fraternal twins in a womb, each hoping to emerge first. One is a rather easy to follow allegation of gender bias in art history, with representative works by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Warhol and others displayed side by side with stunningly similar compositions made by Hilma af Klint year–sometimes decades–earlier. The other is a fuzzier description of the relationship between theosophy and abstraction, particularly as embodied in Klint’s work.
I liked the first one a lot better than the second, even if it never quite establishes itself as the dominant theme. (Insert conjoined twins metaphor here, if you like.) Truth be told, though, the person in my household who knows art history was enraptured by the whole damn thing. I don’t blame her; the film is as generous as any art documentary I’ve seen with displays of Klint’s artwork. Its scope and quality are stunning.
The realization that there have been startling omissions of accomplished women from the histories of arts and sciences is hardly new. I went to college in the not-so-woke 80s, and I recall my liberal arts education doing a fair to middling job of directing my attention to figures such as Artemesia Gentileschi, Sarah Orne Jewett, or Zora Neale Hurston, women who were admired in their own day but somehow always omitted from modern textbooks. Today the latter figures are staples of university literature classes, so I was intrigued by the notion that art history is more resistant to expanding the canon and broadening its scope of included artists.
Perhaps it is the case that art history is more closely curated by a smaller faction than literary history. Perhaps, as the film argues, the metanarratives challenged by new discoveries tend to upset commercial (read: galleries and museums) rather than academic institutions. Either way, one needn’t have a B.F.A. to see the striking resemblances between Klmit’s works, painted years earlier, and those of vastly more lauded male artists who came later. The film even floats the possibility that early pioneers in abstraction liked Kandinsky and Mondrian were directly referencing or subconsciously remembering earlier pieces of Klint’s that they could have seen.
For anyone with more than a cursory awareness of how canons marginalize the achievements of women, Klint’s gender is sufficient to explain her galling lack of reputation. Beyond the Visible wants to add to that reason the further explanation that Klint’s theosophy was either a contributing or even a primary factor in the discipline’s rejection of her work.
This theory is a harder sell, both because dabbling in spiritual ideas has hardly hurt male artists, and because most cultures (I can’t speak to Sweden’s from personal experience) have hardly needed a reason to devalue the work of women pioneers until it was replicated by men.
Neither does it help that theosophy is a a broad and confusing topic that is mostly explained in words — and voice-overs of letters and diaries are no match for pictures, especially in a visual medium. Theosophy we are told is built on the assuming that “all religions are basically the same” and “leads to an awareness of the one-ness of all human beings.” Okay. Cue physicist to remind us that Einstein says light is both a particle and a wave. I’m not trying to be snide, because I really enjoyed the film, but one can only be told so many times and in so many ways that an artist is exploring “what it means to be in the world and how everything fits together” before one says, “Oh just show me more of the cool graffiti already!”
All that being said, the film succeeds just fine at introducing an under-informed world of the incredible body of work by this remarkable woman. Watch it if you can, when you can. (It is scheduled to Open April 17th with virtual engagements in New York and Los Angeles, with proceeds going to support theaters in those areas that are currently shut down due to COVID-19. The studio has asked if you are not in those areas to wait to rent it until such time as your patronage can support a local theater.) Then go see Klint’s artwork if you can. That may turn out to be harder than going to see Kandinsky’s or Mondrian’s for reasons that have nothing to do with social distancing.