We have been waiting a long time for the release of the cinema documentary Jenseits des Sichtbaren – Hilma af Klint (Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint) playing as of 5 March in Berlin.
Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), the Swedish pioneer of abstract art, is undoubtedly one of the most important and outstanding personalities and painters of the 20th century.
A Contamination of the soul
It seems just yesterday I first came across her work on a postcard at Munich’s Haus der Kunst.
I was fascinated, startled and intrigued all at the same time in a déjà vu feeling of having seen the painting before although I never had.
I turned over the postcard of the famous painting Altarpiece, No. 1, Group X from 1915 and found myself murmuring the name as if in trance:
Hilma af Klint.
Sounds all a bit mystical?
In hindsight it wasn’t.
Altar pictures, Group X, no. 1. Altar picture, 1915 Oil and sheet metal on canvas 237,5×179,5 cm HAK187 © The Foundation Hilma af Klint’s Works
As Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre dissolves all boundaries, whether visual, mental or spiritual, and it penetrates us directly.
Imagine the blood from an inoculation turning a piece of white gauze red. Although the weave can still be seen, the gauze is no longer the same, and even when you wash it, traces of the blood remain. It is the same with the art of Hilma Af Klint. A contamination of the soul, if you will.
The cosmos of her paintings and her countless notes encompassed subject areas ranging from astronomy, biology and theosophy to the theory of relativity, and is absolutely unique. To do justice to this artist’s significance and the many facets of her world of thought, we dedicate our first large series on coeur et art to Hilma af Klint. Among other things, we will be travelling to the Malmö Museum of Modern Art to see the next exhibition on the artist’s work, and will shedding light on the relevance of Theosophical teaching and discussing the role of symbolism and mysticism in Hilma af Klint’s art.
We start today with the first instalment of our extensive conversation with Halina Dyrschka, whose documentary has done and will continue to do so much to accord Hilma af Klint the place she deserves in the historiography of art. The importance of this reappraisal and examination cannot be stressed enough, particularly when you consider how systematically women artists going back to the Renaissance have been ignored.
Hilma af Klint is also important for modern society for a completely different reason:
“Not only did she create art that was ahead of its time, she also represented a view of life that remains absolutely forward-looking to this day. Whether in terms of gender equality or her visionary view of religion and spirituality, here is an artist who has something significant to say, regardless of taste preferences or any subjective understanding of art.” Halina Dyrschka
Conversation with Halina Dyrschka
Dear Halina, congratulations on this wonderful documentary on Hilma af Klint’s art, her unique way of working and above all her view of things.
How did this documentary come about; how did it start?
The project actually began one morning at a café table, when I opened a newspaper and saw the words that art history had to be “rewritten” – I thought that was great, as it is not often that such a clear and courageous standpoint is taken. So I immediately registered for the opening of Hilma af Klint’s retrospective in Berlin, which unfortunately was not until six months later. (Hamburger Bahnhof, 2013).
But when I finally went I was speechless (but only briefly.) I was thrilled but also stunned: I felt almost personally insulted.
Who on earth was responsible for the fact that I had heard nothing about Hilma af Klint’s art until then?
How was it possible that these stunning, huge paintings 3.60 metres in height had been overlooked and forgotten? Why was that the case? It was as I was walking through the exhibition that the idea of a film began to take shape.
An archive and many drawers
In the film one gets an idea of how extensive Hilma af Klint’s estate was in terms of its form, its colours and writings, so it must have been a huge challenge to capture the many facets of this fascinating and yet distant artist on film and transport the subtleties of her work. How did you go about this?
It was a highly exciting process, albeit a bit laborious of course. The archives at the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Sweden were in great disarray at the time, and the Foundation itself was also in a difficult state, which made communication difficult.
Internal disagreement had been going on for years and nobody really knew what was in the archives. But Johan af Klint supported me a lot and showed us everything, and was always there when we needed something. In addition, the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art had already digitalized everything for its retrospective, the one that also went on to Berlin in 2013.
So on my first visit to the Foundation’s archives I opened the drawers to see what was in there.
I especially liked the landscape paintings, the watercolours and the incredibly enchanting drawings of children. It was all a bit chaotic but that has been resolved as Hilma af Klint is now a cult star, so to speak.
The art of making one film only
I also took Swedish lessons in Berlin as not much from Hilma af Klint’s notebooks was available in translated form – only a few passages in museum catalogues, and I wanted to read as much of what she had written as possible, at least to some extent. But of course reading all 25,000 pages was not possible – not if I wanted to get the film finished.
A few art historians had already studied Hilma af Klint’s work, however, and the research in the natural sciences was particularly interesting. Physics I particularly wanted to include – after all, “world-shaking” discoveries were being made in Hilma af Klint’s time.
This aspect alone could have filled the whole film. And then I really enjoyed the filming we did in nature at Lake Mälar in Sweden, where Hilma af Klint spent a lot of time.
Nature plays a special role in the film. That’s where it all begins – that’s where Hilma af Klint’s studies began. I wondered what her view of the world was.
How does someone who tries so hard to discover the essence of being, how does she look at things?
How can this be shown and expressed? It was important to play with perception, so in the film you don’t always immediately know where you are or what you are seeing. Hence the many macro shots or reflections.
Someone like Hilma af Klint who went her way so unwaveringly must have had a very unique view of the world. Very individual, but also consistent and strong in character.
Free of ego and open in spirit
Watching the film moved me to tears, especially when “The Ten Greatest”, Hilma af Klint’s absolutely unique series of large-format works, were shown. At the same time I had a feeling of inner agitation and a longing to understand what the artist had felt and seen.
How did you feel during filming, and the closer preoccupation that it meant with her work?
Of course that’s what I was hoping for, that the audience would experience how it might have been and above all how the Hilma af Klint had conceived the works that make up her oeuvre.
My primary concern was to find a perspective that would show how unique this woman was and with what strength and self-confidence she went on her highly successful path through life,
since for me it is sign of success if you manage to make yourself independent of others’ opinions.
Certainly Hilma af Klint had doubts and she was always looking for a person with whom she could exchange ideas. That is understandable because paths such as the one she chose are very lonely. If you decide to do this or that and the environment doesn’t understand, it makes you feel very alone – even in the company of others! This is expressed in a sketch she drew.
If viewers of the film feel longing, perhaps it is the longing to shape their lives as they sees fit, as free from the ego as possible and open in their minds. This opens up real possibilities for a successful existence.
Unknown and invisible universe?
Would you describe yourself as spiritual? Does spirituality flow into your work? What is your personal view of the world of the invisible?
The film is my very personal view of the “universe of Hilma af Klint” – a universe that is entirely ours, however.
But it seems we have created a world on this planet that increasingly excludes fate.
It is as if man could actually plan his whole life and then live it according to this plan. This always becomes clear when something unforeseeable happens; it generally throws us off course, and we’re surprised.
Why is that?
The universe is change, and the same applies to life on this planet.
Everything is constantly changing; there is no such thing as security. We can make plans and try to find security for ourselves, but whether it works in the end remains open.
In this respect Hilma af Klint’s view of life is very familiar to me. It’s what inspired me so much when I saw her work that describes our BEING.
As there is so much we don’t know and cannot see, we should always keep our minds open – i.e. first of all in working on ourselves, in order to really overcome all the narrow limits that we impose on ourselves in our thinking. I see this as a life-long task.
And this is how Hilma af Klint seems to have lived. In this respect, spirituality has certainly flowed into my work, but for me the most important thing was to make Helma af Klint’s world view clear.
I also had to find my own means of expression in the film, ones that would not disturb the ingenious abstract works that show the world beyond the visible.
The colours of spirit in nature
Hence the filming of nature, the only thing that man has not created on this planet and that is subject to constant change and evolution, which basically means development.
Furthermore I wanted to use the scientific discoveries being made at Hilma af Klint’s time and still valid today, to make the subject of spirituality more accessible.
fter all, scientists – especially once concerned with quantum physics – must have a strong belief in being, in life. Otherwise no one would ever have arrived at the idea of investigating this aspect of life.
I find it very reassuring to know that what we perceive and see is not everything. It is enormously helpful when you have to fill out forms for the authorities or hear the latest news.
The special thing about being a filmmaker, however, is that you don’t do it all by yourself and that you hope the creatives involved understand what you are trying to achieve.
I have been very lucky in this respect – and this is something that is essential in life.
I need people who understand what we are creating together. But most people were immediately enthusiastic about this unique work.
Part 2 of our conversation with Halina will be published mid-March.
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Author: Esther Harrison
Cover Image; Artist Hilma af Klint in her studio at Hamngatan, Stockholm, circa 1895. Photograph: Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk