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HILMA AF KLINT & PIET MONDRIAN: FORMS OF LIFE

TATE MODERN

BANKSIDE, LONDON SE1 9TG

20 APRIL – 3 SEPTEMBER 2023


REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR

Although Hilma af Klint (b. Sweden, 1862-1944) and Piet Mondrian (b. Netherlands, 1872-1944) never met, the curators of this latest Tate blockbuster believe they shared a “deep connection to the natural world and the desire to understand the forces behind life on earth” which warrants a joint exhibition.


Fair enough, the celebrated artists were alive at the same time and they both produced a considerable portfolio of work, much of it influenced by the Spiritualistic trend during the early twentieth century reflecting the adaptation of religious sentiments with new scientific ideas. Also, they both painted a lot of plant and flora alongside some mind-blowing abstracts which puts them in common.


It is worth asking, however, why some significant things about the two artists are left aside. A couple of contentious statements bandied around at the moment hinge on"firsts". It's now claimed that Hilma af Klint was the first abstract artist ahead of Kandinsky and that Piet Mondrian conceived grid paintings. Well, it seems a couple of British artists were first on both scores.


Georgiana Houghton anticipated Hilma af Klint by half a century. Marlow Moss challenged Piet Mondrian's claim to be the first geometric artist.

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), a spiritualist artist anticipated Hilma af Klint and Kandinsky by half a century. And British artist Marlow Moss challenged Piet Mondrian's claim to be the first geometric artist. With Piet Mondrian she developed her distinctive style using geometric lines and squares on white or primary colours: Composition in White, Red and Grey (1935); White and Yellow (1935).


That said, Piet Mondrian's grid paintings are very familiar to contemporary audiences, and this is a fantastic chance to see so many iconic works in one place, particularly his grid paintings like Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937–42).



"An immersive experience" (without the technology).

The abstract paintings are the crowd pullers, with the Tate claiming the largest presentation of Hilma af Klint’s work in the UK to date. The Ten Largest 1907 works are on display in one room and make for “an immersive experience” (without the technology).


The curators point out the lack of consideration for af Klint’s work because of her gender. But, this is slightly disingenuous. Not only was there a solo exhibition at the Modern Museum in Stockholm in 2013, and the Guggenheim in 2018 (the most-visited exhibition in the museum’s 60-year history), she was also the subject of a recent film entitled Hilma directed by Lasse Hallstrom released last year 2022: https://www.readersdigest.co.uk/culture/art-theatre/hilma-af-af Klint-movie-everything-you-need-to-know


Hilma Af Klint forbade the exhibition of her spiritual paintings for 20 years after her death.

The film throws a great deal of light on the artist which the exhibition sidelines. In glass cabinets we can peruse some of her influences (Goethe’s colour theory, Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard diagrams and Carl Linnaeus’s renderings of the natural world). However, Hilma the film elaborates on the influence of spiritualism (theosophy and anthroposophy) on af Klint who was a follower of the medium Helena Blavatsky and heavily taken with mysticism and seances. Af Klint was obsessed with Steiner, constantly seeking his approbation. She fell out with him and the Stockholm Academy because they dismissed her mystical paintings and, as a result, she forbade the exhibition of her spiritual paintings for 20 years after her death. She died in 1944 and her abstract works were eventually displayed in 1986 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.



Af Klint had several female lovers, not least Anna Cassell who has been ignored as an artist with much of her work lost.


More importantly, Hilma tells af Klint’s personal story. Af Klint had several female lovers, not least Anna Cassell who has been ignored as an artist with much of her work lost. Af Klint worked with a group of women who called themselves De Fem (The Five). They painted in collaboration with af Klint, including The Ten Largest 1907, rather like Renaissance apprentices to the grand masters. Curiously, much of this isn't mentioned in Forms of Life.


Mondrian's studies of decaying chrysanthemums alone are worth the visit.

Similarly, to af Klint, Mondrian was also a skilled landscape artist (initially painting traditional Dutch landscapes) and a still life painter. His studies of decaying chrysanthemums alone are worth the visit. It is this aspect of the exhibition that warrants bringing these artists together. They are renowned for abstract paintings, but they were both excellent botanical artists. Whilst the abstract works are the most iconic, it is the flower paintings that steal the show.



IMAGES

Top left to right: Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 3, Youth, 1907. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation; Hilma af Klint, Botanical Drawing c.1890. Courtesy Hilma af Klint Foundation; Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation 


Bottom left to right: Piet Mondrian, Red Amaryllis with blue background, 1909–1910. Private Collection; Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, black, yellow, blue and gray 1921. Kunstmuseum Den Haag; Piet Mondrian, Metamorphosis, 1908. Kunstmuseum Den Haag.





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