This documentary makes a pretty convincing case for the admission of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint into the boys’ club of abstract art, alongside Kandinsky, Mondrian et al. Af Klint was an outsider in her lifetime and when she died in 1944, her paintings gathered dust in her nephew’s attic. (She did her legacy no favours by stipulating in her will that none of her work should be seen for 20 years.) Today, her work is a nuisance to art history: to acknowledge her would require rewriting the entire chapter on abstract art.
Born in 1862, Af Klint grew up in middle-class privilege, encouraged by her father to paint. After graduating from the Royal Academy in Stockholm, she worked as portrait painter and illustrator before turning to radical abstract works from 1906. A maverick free-thinker, she was fascinated by modern scientific discoveries as well as by spiritualism and seances, covering her paintings in an esoteric language of signs and symbols. Her mystical beliefs gave the art world an excuse to dismiss her as a kook when the work later came to light.
Female art historians and writers interviewed in the film point out that that the history of art is the history of male genius. Women don’t fit the narrative. Their tone of furious resignation reminded me of that #MeToo placard: “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”
Depressingly, anonymity followed Af Klint to her grave – literally. After she died at 81 her nephew buried her with her mother and father in a Stockholm cemetery but didn’t bother to update the headstone. Director Halina Dyrschka asks: “How would you ever know she was here?” She could be talking about female artists full stop; yet in a photo taken in her studio, Af Klint looks fiercely present, intense and lively with bright, piercing eyes – you could imagine Saoirse Ronan playing her in a biopic.
• Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint is in cinemas from 9 October.