Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 15, 2020 8:14 pm 
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A newly famous Swedish woman 'abstract' artist with a spiritual bent

This elaborately produced documentary, the directorial debut of German filmmaker Halina Dyrschka, features multiple talking heads, footage of sites of the subject's life, stock footage, reenactments, and many images of a large quantity of works produced by the hitherto little known Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), who may be considered an unrecognized pioneer of abstract art. The film's speakers (other than family members or relatives of associates) are passionate advocates, and this comes off as more promotional than analytical. A clearer summary of her work than may emerge here is in the Wikipedia article, which says: "Her paintings, which sometimes resemble diagrams, were a visual representation of complex spiritual ideas." It's a shame that we're shown literally hundreds of her images with almost no specific discussion of their individual intellectual content or aesthetic value.

What is mentioned is that af Klint was deeply involved at one time in the anthroposophical movement (with some inspiration from scientific studies as well), and that in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth key artists with an abstract bent, notably Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky, were all interested in the spiritual aspects of their imagery, and in theosophy. There is not as much detail about this as there could have been or its specific relation to her work here, but we do learn that her interest may have led af Klint into heartbreak, since when she showed her work to the key anthroposophy figure Rudolf Steiner and he rejected it, she stopped working in abstract form altogether for four years from 1908-1912, incidentally a period when other abstract pioneers were very active, and cubism's analytic phase was in its heyday with Picasso and Braque.

As voices in this film rather stridently point out, art is a man's world, and this affected af Klint's progress in her time. But she also seems to have been a self-motivated loner who started out with many advantages, who rejected some exhibition opportunities or bypassed them, though the filmmakers uncovered a forgotten show she had in 1928 in London. She received lifelong support from wealthy fellow Swedish artist Anna Cassel, and the film provides an animated recreated drawing to show the tall Gothic summer studio in the woods where af Klint worked.

Af Klint was prolific in more than one style. Early on, after developing conventional realistic skills at art school and afterward received payment for realistic portraits, she also did attractive watercolors of flowers, etc. At some point, the other work began. Rather than abstract, it might be more appropriate to call it spiritual diagrams, and its role as part of a spiritual philosophy partly links it to William Blake's paintings. Much of it appears to be in series, with round, spiral, and symmetrical images vastly predominating, often with writing or numbers, as if to simulate diagrams, though the series of very large, uniformly shaped vertical paintings exhibited two years ago at the Guggenheim in New York consists of scattered large amoeboid shapes, which seem joyously abstract. The film's brief mention of al Klint's color associations (yellow for male, blue for female) might help one interpret these oddball images, which obviously of the three pioneers, Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky, link her closest to the latter; but she remains sui generis. The exhibition stills show the show was designed to impress with the works' size and number, rather than aside any one painting for contemplation.

The show reminded me of the documentary about Yayoi Kusama, the prolific and grandiose Japanese woman abstractionist, and the two ladies may have in common a certain degree of mental derangement. Kusama's work is eye-poppingly psychedelic; af Klint's is colorful and pleasing, but makes less aesthetic sense than that of most good abstractions.

An artist like this, who almost seems like an "outsider artist," is always interesting as a unique phenomenon. But artists who were part of the culture of their times and interacted with other key artists and schools tend to provide the material for more interesting documentaries. I'd cite in this regard woman abstract artist Lyubov popova, (1889-1924), a member of the Russian avantgarde who produced a beautiful and coherent body of work during her short life.

The film is in German and Swedish, with moments of English.

For an informative discussion of af Klint's influences and style, see the Guggenheim page. See also Kate Kelloway's Observer article

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, 94 mins., debuted at Gothenberg and showed also at CPH:DOX Copenhagen, Hot Docs (Toronto), and Vancouver. It was to open theatrically in New York on April 10 before expanding nationwide. Instead due to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber are opening it in virtual theater though Kino Marquee starting Apr. 17 (included in sponsored venues is the Roxie in San Francisco).

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