In her recent book Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel briefly recounts the story of a misattributed painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, the piece was originally thought to be the handiwork of Jacques Louis-David, a French Neoclassicist. Then a little research raised the high likelihood that the esteemed piece of art didn’t spill from David’s brush, and was instead painted by a woman. (Constance Marie Charpentier was thought to be the artist for a time, and the Met now credits the work to Marie-Denise Villers.) The determination inspired fresh critical evaluation, according to Gabriel:
Of course, the painting itself had not changed one stroke, but the scholars who had previously heralded it as the finest example of the French master David’s powers admitted, on second thought, that it really wasn’t very good. One wrote with a sniff that it had the common aroma of a “feminine spirit.”
And that’s how the canon remains the province of white males.
Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint, the new documentary by Halina Dyrschka, is firmly forucsed one revolutionary, underappreciated painter, but it is truly about the long and enduring problem of women who are disregarded in the discourse around genius. Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist born in the second half the nineteenth century. Growing up in relative privilege, af Klint was encouraged to pursue her artistic instincts, and the early drawings and paintings Dyrschka shares in the film offer proof that the young woman’s talent was considerable, perhaps free of any limits. Image after image amazes with its clarity and precision, meaning it’s no surprise that af Klint’s early success came as a painter of portraits.
What makes af Klint an important, distinctive figure, though, is the push she eventually made into abstract art, and what animates Dyrschka’s film is a conviction that af Klint got to the new form of painting first, comfortably ahead of Wassily Kandinsky, who’s commonly credited as the creator of the form. Dyrschka finds plenty of people — scholars, artists — excited to sit before the camera and attest to the validity of af Klint’s as the true trailblazers, but the paintings force the case closed. The artwork is shared on screen freely and often in startling comparison with similar but less accomplished work that followed. There’s even a suggestion that Kandinsky and other contemporaries might have been exposed to af Klint’s work before they struck out in a similar direction.
Dyrschka can’t take the notion of af Klint as an actual influencer very far, because not much is known of the artist’s personal life or even professional associations. While that requires some filmmaking liberties, such as the occasional use of dramatization to depict af Klint at work, Dyrschka mostly holds back from too much idle speculation, preferring to stick with what facts she does have and let the viewer’s curious suppositions fill in the rest. What really matters, after all, is what’s most difficult to dispute: the extraordinary works of art af Klint left behind.
Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint is available for home screening through the heroic Kino Marquee initiative, with a portion of the proceeds of the rental going to the local theater of your choice.