Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian at the Tate Modern
Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is on at the Tate Modern until 3rd September 2023. The exhibition offers a poignant and overdue look at the oeuvres of two separate artists, connected by their shared ideology. Here I offer my reflections.
The pairing of these two artists may seem like a strange one to some. Indeed the Guardian review by Laura Cumming calls them a 'thrillingly odd couple'. While they were contemporaries, they both died in 1944, they never met and didn't know each others' work. Klint was Swedish and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm; Mondrian was Dutch and studied at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (State Academy of Fine Arts) in Amsterdam. But to me, it was a completely natural pairing. When I studied Art History at university I'm pretty sure we looked at Klint and Mondrian in consecutive weeks, compared them side-by-side, and looked at their shared interest in Theosophy. Perhaps my lecturer was revolutionary in doing this (he was fantastic, but I doubt it), or, more likely, putting them together just makes sense. Honestly I'm surprised they hadn't done it before.
The exhibition begins with Klint and Mondrian's mutual beginnings in landscape. They were both fascinated by natural forms. Their careers began in the academic tradition and representative painting, but the importance of nature, in particular trees and flowers, is a theme carried through the exhibition. By the second room, however, their work is very quickly situated in abstraction, symbolism, and spiritualism.
As you walk through from the the small first room, with dark grey walls and small works, you are greeted by a much more open space. Long, white walls are adorned with much bolder works, filled with symbology and creeping into abstraction. A collection of 14 of Klint's paintings line the wall in front of you. These are WUS/Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, The Evolution, from the Paintings for the Temple series. From 1906-1915 she painted 193 works which she believed were commissioned by her spiritual guide, Amaliel, whom she thought to exist on a higher plane of consciousness. They contain Christian symbols - the crucifix, a bent woman in blue robes, presumably Mary, Mother of God, snakes - alongside spiraling shells, mathematical symbols, men in circles with arms outstretched akin to Vitruvian Man, ovarian forms echoing female reproductive biology, and symmetry, duality. The word 'EVOLUNTiONEN' is repeated. A clear thought process emerges of biological and spiritual evolution happening in parallel. They show the beginning of her move towards abstraction and art with meaning; art as an intellectual pursuit and a space for ideological exploration.
Opposite these pieces lie Mondrian’s Evolution, a similarly transitional work. Moving from figurative to abstract, he experiments with a reduced colour palette, angular lines and geometric forms. Three nude females stand in triptych, the outer two looking up in silent supplication, the middle staring out with large, almond shaped eyes, in confrontation with the viewer. Triangles and diamonds are concealed within the bodies, representing the nipples and navels. According to art history this piece explores humanity’s progress form the physical to spiritual realm, but it offers a look at Mondrian’s own progression towards spirituality. Here is also where the exhibition first mentions Theosophy, an esoteric, ‘occult’ movement that brought together elements from many religions so leave people towards a spiritual awakening and universal brotherhood of humanity. Theosophical teachings were crucial to the work of both artists exhibited.
As you progress through the exhibition you further explore the mutual, continued interest in nature for both artists. Botanical drawings explore themes of time, decay, the cyclicality of nature. The Tree was an important symbol for Mondrian and offers the entry point for the move towards his most famous works. From his encounter with Cubism after a trip to Paris in 1911 he began a process of painting trees, distilling them into vertical and horizontal axes, gravitating towards a more definitive abstraction of form and line, emphasising the two-dimensionality of surface. The exhibition text cites his view of the vertical and the horizontal as expressions of two opposing forces and the equilibrium of opposites. The journey towards the pieces for which Mondrian is so well-known is clear in these works.
Klint’s tree works, on the other hand, draw on the ‘axis mundi’ or ‘world tree’ present in many religions. She spent two years working on a series called The Tree of Knowledge. These small works on paper all have a verticality, a central trunk connecting the top and bottom of the surface plane, and radiant beams of light-cum-branches. They contain religious symbols: Adam and Eve, doves, angels and goblets. A divergence starts to emerge in their works; Klint towards symbolism and Mondrian towards a true, linear abstraction.
The exhibition does a good job of leading you through the narrative development of each artists. Visual progression is accompanied by text that is clear and direct, while still informative. Works are given plenty of space to breathe, especially the particularly seminal ones, though a few of the smaller pieces get a bit lost in the mass of white walls. I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the sterility of conventional gallery spaces, the ‘white cube’ and would like to see more effort put into environmental storytelling in exhibitions like this, but that is an issue, I think, for another blog.
Regardless, the story of these two artists and their simultaneously parallel and entwined artistic identities emerges. The tree room is, I believe, where you begin to see the crucial difference that separates the two artists; the difference that is brought to bear when comparing them directly. Where Klint can be seen exploring all the spirituality and wonder of nature, tracing the growth and decay of nature over time within the scientific tradition of botanical illustration, incorporating the religiosity, spirituality, and the decorative elements of art nouveau, Mondrian centres in on the plastic. The structure, the form, interaction of three-dimensional object with two-dimensional surface. The accompanying text states that ‘the trunks and branches are condensed to a network of verticals and horizontals, as Mondrian focused on distilling the image to the tree’s essential forms.’
This is the nucleus of that difference that I had not seen in these two artists before, that is not referenced directly in the exhibition but that grew in my mind as I wondered further through the journey. Where Hilma af Klint is characterised by exploration, a desire to expand and speak to something much bigger than herself, it strikes me that Piet Mondrian has a certain desire to condense, to make the whole expanse of the spiritual cosmos into something simple, manageable, digestible.
It’s Room 7, ‘New Old Geometries’, that really brings out the sense of awe in these works, and I admit I caught my breath as I walked in. Klint’s The Swan, 1914, is a remarkable work. A black and a white swan face each other in reflection, engaged in conflict. Helen Blavatsky, the primary founder of Theosophy, discussed the symbol of the swan as an occult symbol of unity extensively in her book The Secret Doctrine, which Klint owned. This was, perhaps, a reflection on the destruction and conflict engulfing Europe during WWI. Next to it is a sister painting with cubes instead of swans. Cubes could be a depiction of the notion of a dematerialised fourth dimension, a theory she would have encountered through Theosophy but that fell out of fashion after Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Aside from the spiritual-scientific musings at play in this room, I found these pieces particularly visually arresting. A series of large pieces in succession, black and white with colour details, echoes of warmth, humanity, spirituality, religiosity, intellectual exploration. These works lay physics atop the cosmos and look for patterns. They speak so loudly in a quiet, contemplative room, in a language that seems so familiar but we cannot quite understand. They offer a way in, a draw into this unknown language that speak of enlightenment.
Here Klint’s call towards the expanse is clear. I see a humility and reverence in her works. It is well known that she left instructions on her death not to show her work publicly for 20 years, believing that audiences of the future would understand it better. There can be read a certain arrogance in this, that she was ahead of her time or that she had reached a cognitive enlightenment that her contemporaries could not hope to achieve. In 1917 she said ‘My mission if it succeeds, is of great significance to humankind. For I am able to describe the path of the soul form the beginning of the spectacle of its life to its end.’ Perhaps there is an element of this, but to me her work speaks of reflection, simultaneously a quiet meditation and excited discovery. What’s more, I see the way she spoke about the way she wanted people to engage with it as a didactic desire, to enlighten and elucidate and lead them towards a brighter future. She was revolutionary. She experimented in ways that no one else had; indeed, she is now understood to be the first artist to make fully abstract art.
In the penultimate room is displayed the culmination of Mondrian’s oeuvre, his ‘neo-plastic’ works exploring the visual language of ‘pure relationships’. His ideas are played out of equilibrium, energetic balance, a search for order. These fully abstracted works are displayed in a room that echoes, even amplifies them with large areas of white, delineations where white walls meet grey. I would like to see more exhibitions in the future experiment with this idea of environment echoing or complimenting artwork. I felt I recognised the value of these pure abstractions in a way that I hadn’t before, through their situation in space. This is perhaps a contradiction in terms with regard to these specific works, but I find myself longing for art that is rooted in reality, in dialogue with its surroundings, not floating around in the abstract void that distances it from so many people. Ironically, these works are exactly what I feel myself moving away from – high art, deeply intellectual, cognitive works that are so widely recognised but so few people actually understand. Even elitist. But in this space, that in all likelihood accidentally echoes the works (the room design here is no different form the rest of the exhibition), I was able to feel, to sense, the works, rather than understand them. Perhaps this is the “wrong” way to experience them – if such a thing exists – but it is the way that had most value to me.
The exhibition has its crescendo in a cacophony of feeling, in Hilma’s The Ten Largest paintings from The Paintings for The Temple series. Large, bold, brightly coloured paintings loom in a dimly lit room under stoplights, bathing them in all the drama they deserve. All of the ideas and experiment in Klint’s work displayed in the previous rooms, all we have learnt about her and her beliefs, is brought to bear in this room. Even if you did not read or understand it all, the evolution is clear. The traces of her previous developments, experiments, and thinkings are played out.
As the exhibition guide states, ‘the imagery veers from microscopic to cosmic.’ They are bold, fluid, intellectual but emotional, feminine. They seen to stand in defiant supplication. To what? I’m not sure. Perhaps the cosmos. Perhaps everything we do not yet know. Perhaps all the competing and confluent ideologies of the universe. There is a sense to me that she recognises her own limitations, or lack of understanding, but she seeks knowledge and enlightenment with joy, with humility. There is no finality. There is not the confidence, even arrogance, I sense in Mondrian’s works. There is just expression.
It may be that these ideas do not align with the art historical critique ascribed to the two artists on display here, or their own rhetoric, but these are the notions and feeling this exhibition left me with which, in my view, is far more important.