Hilma  (12A) |Close-up Film Review

Dir. Lasse Hallström , Sweden, 2022, 119 mins

Cast:  Tora Hallström, Lena Olin, Catherine Chalk

Review by Carol Allen

Lasse Hallström’s biopic of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint will provide an introduction for many people to the work of a woman painter, who could well be termed the mother of modern abstract art but who was until recent years largely unknown.

Hilma is played as a young woman by the director’s daughter Tora Hallström, with her mother Lena Olin taking over the role for the character’s older years. 

Hilma was born in 1862 into a respectable middle class Swedish family.  We first meet her as a bright and curious teenager, very close to her younger sister Hermina.  But when Hermina dies and then shortly afterwards so does their father, Hilma becomes very interested in spiritualism.  Her talent for drawing, particularly of nature, takes her to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where she and four other young women form a group they call The Five, who seek inspiration for their work through occult seances and such. 

The male dominated art world shows no interest in them and eventually the group builds a sort of residential temple in the countryside, where they live as a commune and display Hilma’s enormous colourful paintings – work which she devoutly believes to be inspired by the spirit world.

Hilma is particularly close to Anna (Catherine Chalk), a rich heiress, who is happy to spend her money supporting Hilma’s work.  It is a relationship which appears to be lesbian but if you’re expecting scenes of steamy sex here, forget it.  Nothing more than the odd passionate kiss.  

In all other respects Hilma’s personal life is fairly uneventful.  After her relationship with Anna breaks up, she forms an attachment to her ailing mother’s nurse and when we meet her as an older woman, we see some of her fruitless attempts to interest the art establishment in her project of displaying her spirit guided work in a spiral shaped gallery.  Her work was never seriously shown in her lifetime – she died in1944 – but in 2019, sixty five years after her death, a major exhibition along the lines she dreamed of was mounted in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

One aspect of the film that disappoints is that we don’t see enough of Olin as older Hilma.  Late in the film the story leaps from Hilma in her country temple to her older self making a couple of futile attempts to raise interest in her work and staring reflectively out of a tram window.  Apart from a brief contact with her ex lover Anna, now also grown old, it throws little further light on the character.

The film itself is looks lovely, as one would expect from Hallström.  The Swedish countryside Hilma loved is beautifully shown but so are the scenes of the city streets buzzing with trams in the twenties and thirties, some of which has been skilfully colourised from early footage of the period.  And the paintings themselves are quite startlingly gorgeous, featuring large, colourful, detailed shapes which are somehow more accessible and moving than the abstract compositions of later artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian. 

If you want to see them for yourself, some of Hilma’s work can be seen in London next year at Tate Modern along with other works by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who coincidentally shared Hilma’s interest in the relationship between nature and its abstract depiction.