LONDON — Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (b. 1872) and Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (b. 1862) never met, nor did they know of each other’s work or belong to common artistic movements. His paintings, characterized by blocks of primary color segmented by rigid black gridlines, could not be further from her pastel-dominated swirls and fluid lines. In terms of comparing or finding commonality between different artists using visual analysis, this pairing by five curators for Tate Modern’s Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life seems ludicrous. The press release acknowledges the extent of their obvious parallels: “they each developed languages of abstract art — almost simultaneously — in the early 1900s,” both died in 1944, and both ate in the same vegetarian restaurant, independent of the other.
Instead, we are invited to consider how both were informed by the contemporary movements of theosophy and anthroposophy perpetuated by mystic Helena Blavatsky and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, respectively, which posited divine and spiritual realms beyond human experience, and endorsed vegetarianism specifically for its mental and physical effects on the body. Af Klint famously specified that her spiritual works were not to be shown until 20 years after her death, anticipating them as beyond contemporary audiences’ comprehension, or receptiveness. In an age obsessed with wellness and bodily health, mistrust of government-sanctioned vaccines, and the use of crystals for healing power (not necessarily by the same people), today’s audiences are evidently more open to the artists’ sensibilities — and may also unironically purchase the “Séance” pale ale in the gift shop, bearing a label inspired by “af Klint’s spirituality.”
Throughout the exhibition, nature is a constant from which wider concepts concerning life, art, and the cosmos emanate. Mondrian and af Klint both started as academically trained landscape painters, and early examples here are fascinating not for their accomplishment — works by both artists are unremarkable in scale, ambition, and technical execution — but for signs that they had trouble capturing the spatial depth or three-dimensional modeling of traditional representational painting. Spatially flat, horizontally bisected, conceptually dull landscape vistas hint at their turn toward two-dimensional surface composition. Botanical flower studies, we are told, facilitate “their early immersion in the language of plants and the vegetal world … as a means to articulate correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm — the idea that the structure of the cosmos is mirrored in the smallest living entity.” Yet they are so wiltingly timid that they demonstrate the artists’ shared inability to formally realize these grander interests. Incidentally, a caption claiming that “Mondrian’s paintings of dying sunflowers and chrysanthemums draw on Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of wilting sunflowers” with zero apparent evidence is unforgivably ahistorical curating.
When it comes to Mondrian’s and af Klint’s independent developments toward abstraction, the former’s narrative arc is more definitive and satisfying. In a section on “The Tree,” we are told “in many cultures and thought systems, trees are connected to mystical forces beyond the visible world.” Mondrian’s 1912 “Flowering Apple Tree” bridges the gap between naturalistic representation and his iconic perpendicular gridline methodology.
To fault af Klint’s abstraction, however, is to ignore the fundamental factor that her work was, in her estimation, informed by guidance from another plane. The paintings on view here are her spiritual pieces, rather than the work that paid her daily bread in her lifetime (infer what you will from the latter’s absence in art history and most exhibitions). Af Klint was a member of De Fem (the Five), a group of female artists who conducted seances and made art directed by spirits they named Ananda, Amaliel, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor. A tiny 1903 graphite on paper drawing of intertwining spirals, very much like a spirograph, is one example of automatic drawing they believed to be guided by these spirits. The motif of interlocking loops emerging from a central point recurs in many of her large-scale pieces, with variations in scale and proportion.
“Pure” automatic painting, as devoid as possible of conscious intention, is exemplified by artists such as Alan Davie in the 20th century, who plastered layer upon layer of paint on the support while in a meditative state. The fact that af Klint used pastel colors with consideration for aesthetics, as well as representational symbols — seashells, female and male figures, sperm and ovum — indicates a desire for the work to be understood by her audience.
While her ostensible queerness, pioneering feminism, and anti-establishment beliefs are arguably more accepted by today’s mainstream audiences than those of her lifetime, several aspects of anthoposophy stemming from Steiner sit a little more queasily. A sequence titled Series II (1920) visualizes the various world religions “at particular points in their development.” They are each represented by ovals corresponds with the “theosophical principle that all religions are connected by a core spiritual truth,” which is fine in principle, but reductively unifying them as a geometric shape, and ignoring their individual characteristics and vast histories, comes across as naïve. Weirdly, the caption states that the Theosophical Society disseminated texts using publishing technologies “based on new channels of communication used to support Britain’s imperial activities in India,” then goes no further with the wider historical and political significance of this statement.
Also on display is a 1922 letter from Mondrian to Rudolf Steiner. When Steiner did not reply, Mondrian apparently, according to the captions, “suggested that while Steiner might understand the spiritual world, he understood very little about art.” This exemplifies the show’s most compelling crux: more than simply exploring differing modes of abstraction, he and af Klint proposed the sufficiency of art as a medium to capture the invisible realm beyond our own.
Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through September 3. The exhibition was curated by Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern; Nabila Abdel Nabi, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; Briony Fer, Professor, UCL; Laura Stamps, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Kunstmuseum den Haag; and Amrita Dhallu, Assistant Curator, International Art, Tate Modern.