Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Born in 1862, Sweden’s Hilma Af Klint is one of the world’s first abstract artists. Interest in Af Klint has already seen a blockbuster exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, and her story now receives the Hollywood Treatment.

Directed and written by Lasse Hallstrom, Hilma charts the personal and artistic progress of the artist. Af Klint is first played by Tora Hallstrom (a fiery performance that justifies the casting) and a later, elegiac interpretation from Lena Olin. A family tragedy sees Af Klint’s ambition emerge. She shoulders the trauma, and starts a life of study.

Af Klint’s art begins with an interest in Nature. She starts to draw from life: plants and animals. Her skill admits her to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and she is introduced to a society of women interested in mysticism and the afterlife. A newly-bereaved Af Klint leans into this philosophy. A classmate, Mathilda (Lily Cole), talks of her near-death experiences. Are they visions or hallucinations?

Hallstrom digs gleefully into Af Klint’s biography, and there’s plenty for a film-maker to get excited about. The atelier built by Af Klint and her friends; where spiritualism and art co-exist; her complicated love affair with fellow artist Anna (a notably good Catherine Chalk). The film also derides the idea of Af Klint as an isolated genius – she saw touring exhibitions including work by Edvard Munch (a charmingly twitchy performance from Paulius Markevicius). Hilma has visions of abstract colours and shapes and applies them to canvas. Decades ahead of her peers, the work receives a chilly reception. Af Klint’s striving for freedom agitates against the older traditions and customs of her life. The 19th century has yet to give way to the 20th, and Hilma finds herself caught in a system where men remain the taste-makers.

While the film is a good introduction to the artist, the way her story has been told is largely by-the-numbers. The early tragedy, the formative, shaping experiences, the realisation that the artist will never be fully appreciated in their lifetime. Hallstrom takes few risks with the biopic formula, but the scenes where the camera eyes and appraises Af Klint’s work are where the film comes alive.

The artistic legacy of Af Klint is, from our perspective, rather obvious. But what is missing is the implication of what her work represents. Not only was she producing abstracts before Klee, Mondrian and Kandinsky, but her pre-empting these artists means a seismic repositioning of art history. It also raises further questions about gate-keeping in the art world; who decides what we see; which artists can command the biggest prices at auction. Hilma suggests that Af Klint’s artistic exile was largely self-imposed, but we’re not seeing the whole picture.

There is a lot to admire in Hallstrom’s film, but the lack of attention paid to Af Klint’s work in contemporary context ends with a film that, while sketching in the finer details of her life, misses a vital opportunity to discuss women’s place in the art world.

Hilma will be in UK Cinemas from 28th October.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Misses the big picture

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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