Tate Modern’s Spring exhibition is an exploration of two groundbreaking modern artists. Hilma af Klint (b. Sweden, 1862-1944) and Piet Mondrian (b. Netherlands, 1872-1944) were two of the most imaginative artists of the twentieth century. They shared the same deep connection to the natural world and the desire to understand the forces behind life on earth, although the two never met.
Tate Modern, Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life will put these two visionary painters in close dialogue for the first time. The exhibition features around 250 works, including paintings, drawings and archival materials. The show will reveal how their art reflected radical new ideas, theories and scientific discoveries in an era of rapid social change.
All ten of Hilma af Klint’s monumental paintings from the series The Ten Largest 1907 are presented together in the UK for the first time. The exhibition will be the most extensive presentation of Hilma af Klint’s work in the UK to date. It will also be the first major UK exhibition in over 25 years to highlight Piet Mondrian’s early work alongside the iconic grid compositions for which he is best known.
Forms of Life will be rooted in af Klint and Mondrian’s fascination with the natural world. Having both started out as representational landscape painters, they each developed languages of abstract art – almost simultaneously – in the early 1900s. Moreover, their unique approaches to abstraction were each inspired by new ways of looking closely at nature. The exhibition will trace how their powerful affinity with nature remained enduring throughout their careers. It features early landscapes, botanical drawings and depictions of flowers and trees alongside abstract paintings.
The exhibition will also explore how both artists engaged with spirituality and mysticism in their art. Across Europe, artists and thinkers like af Klint and Mondrian turned to esoteric movements like theosophy and anthroposophy to reconcile religion with the modern world.
Alongside her work as a professional artist in Stockholm, af Klint was also a medium and believed that higher powers guided her paintings. Separate from her conventional landscapes and portraits, from 1905, af Klint created a secret body of mystical paintings, which she insisted should not be seen in public for at least 20 years after her death. Tate Modern will showcase key examples of these works. The exhibition will also explore Mondrian’s spiritualist beliefs, including how his geometric, angular and minimal brand of painting was designed to transmit ideas about the essential reality of the universe. His abstract grid paintings are shown alongside the paintings of flowers which he made throughout his life.
Sketches, notebooks, and letters from af Klint’s and Mondrian’s archives offer an intimate look at some of the ideas behind their art alongside key references such as Goethe’s colour theory, Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard diagrams and Carl Linnaeus’s renderings of the natural world revealing how the two artists developed their own visual languages of signs, colours and shapes as a means to make sense of life on earth.
Hilma af Klint was born in Solna, Sweden in 1862. After studying classical portraiture at the Technical School in Konstfack, she went on to become one of the first women to study at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts (1882–7). In 1896 af Klint joined The Five (de Fem), a group of women artists interested in spiritualism, the natural world, and new developments in science. In 1904, during one of their regular séances, she was commissioned by a spirit to create a body of work ‘on an astral plane’ in order to ‘proclaim a new philosophy of life’. The result was The Paintings for the Temple, a body of work comprising six series. On completing the series in 1915, af Klint returned to working on a smaller scale and began to favour watercolours over oils. Af Klint died in 1944, and although her naturalist paintings had been included in the Baltic Exhibition in Malmö in 1914, her abstract works were not displayed until after her death, when in 1986 a painting was included in The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her work was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Modern Museum in Stockholm in 2013, and a retrospective on af Klint at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2018 was the most-visited exhibition in the museum’s 60-year history.
Piet Mondrian was born in Amersfoort, The Netherlands in 1872. At the age of 20, he moved to Amsterdam, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts (1892-5). Initially painting traditional Dutch landscapes, he soon began making Luminist works, some of which were exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in 1909, firmly establishing him as part of the Dutch avant-garde. Mondrian became a member of the Theosophical Society in 1909, and the spiritual influence of the movement directly influenced his representational style. Mondrian’s experiments in Cubism while living in Paris between 1912-4 led him on the path to abstraction. Rather than alluding to three-dimensional illusionistic depth like the Cubists, he wished to accentuate the flat surface of the painting. Back in Holland in 1917, Mondrian co-founded De Stijl, a movement which embraced basic visual elements such as geometric forms and primary colours. Returning to Paris after the First World War, he began making the abstract compositions of rectangles, black lines, white and primary colours, for which he became best known. After a few years in London, Mondrian emigrated to New York in 1940, where he began experimenting with coloured lines. Mondrian died on 1 February 1944 in New York.
Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms Of Life, Tate Modern, 20 April – 3 September 2023