There is always something to learn at the Tate, but this was a lesson I never expected. When Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life was announced, I was both excited and perplexed at what seemed a strange pairing. Hopefully, through this dialogue, the curators would share new entry points for understanding and expanding our ways of seeing, or perhaps they would follow intuitive, imaginative leaps to highlight previously overlooked aspects of both artists’ practice. Ideally, they would establish a relationship that would underscore the curation and inspire the hang.
The show opened with a small collection of landscape paintings by Klint and Mondrian. Whilst the wall text outlined how both artists developed practices that were “rooted in nature”, the blunt comparison of works was painful. On the central wall was a masterfully paired down landscape painting by Mondrian; sparse horizontal elements in soft, luminous tones were anchored by an almost imperceptible pair of grazing cattle – mere daubs of black and white. On closer inspection, it seemed their bodies were echoed on the horizon line, like the flight of wild geese. There was a clear, elegant prefiguring to his later grid abstractions. Opposite this, Klint’s meandering landscapes seemed like poor and not even distant cousins. Simply by comparison to Mondrian’s essential view, her observation of the frayed edges and teeming verges of a country road seemed almost twee. Was my bias being tested, I wondered?
The show’s curatorial text outlined a loose thesis: both artists “began their careers as academically trained landscape painters in the late nineteenth century, before developing radically new models of painting in the twentieth century.” Whilst the close observation of nature might well have served as a foundation for each artist’s practice, the idea that their academic training would have been equivalent, and therefore a common thread, is unlikely. In the 19th century, men and women simply did not have the same opportunities. The statement then goes on to say that this show “explores how they both developed the possibilities of abstract art… Their art-making processes are presented as a way of thinking through nature. In their ways, each artist created an abstract language that could express art’s interconnectivity with all life forms.”
If these statements were to ring true, one would expect to find numerous cross-over points between the artist’s work, particularly how they drew out patterns and universal archetypes. Whilst much of Klint’s work is automatic, it is not abstract by nature but intensely figurative. Meanwhile, all spirally blooming forms one typically finds in nature would eventually be subsumed by Mondrian’s monochrome grid – a self-imposed linear system that ultimately expressed his unique nature. They are very different, but this could serve as an exciting contrast.
Stepping into the next room after reading this, my stomach lurched. Running along the left wall was a selection of Klint’s delicate watercolour drawings, which were almost impossible to consider against the extreme radiance of a large futurist triptych by Mondrian opposite, in searing cobalt and yellow. Whilst Klint’s drawings were private, not for display, Mondrian’s work developed a very public style. The room was loud, tense and clashing – one could neither take in Mondrian’s brilliant, rarely-seen figurative paintings nor appreciate the soft tones and delicateness in Klint’s drawings.
As if they knew, the curators had once again placed a single oil painting by Mondrian on the central back wall. Again there was a clarity of vision and wonder at his ability to capture the simple beauty of a coral-pink cloud floating in a cerulean sky. It was a palette cleanse and a strange statement of superiority, which had no apparent bearing on anything we could see in Klint’s pieces. Yes, this show highlights the moments in the paint where Mondrian began to isolate motifs and focus on a single thing, but I was heartbroken for Klint at the brutality of this compare and contrast.
I fell apart in the next room, not only for the sheer, exquisite beauty of Mondrian’s flowers but for the missed opportunity to draw parallels with Klint’s imaginative works on paper in the previous room. To the left was a salon hang of Mondrian’s sketches and preliminary paintings, a showcase of his draughtsmanship and capacity to focus on a natural detail that determines the compositional logic and repeating patterns within the whole picture. Opposite this was a pretty but unremarkable hang of Klint’s botanical sketches, which gave way to her more intuitive, inimitable works on paper, but showed no sign of the brilliant leaps and geometric connections she would make in her later works.
The comparison was both unimaginative and reductive; as a viewer, it was impossible not to unconsciously choose the better artist and perpetuate the received art world bias that had kept Klint out of the public’s mind for so long. The truth is that Mondrian lived the harsh reality of showing his work to an audience, forcing him to distil his voice and communicate with the developing schools of thought. Meanwhile, Klint had to secretly develop a language that would later bloom years after she had gone unnoticed out of this world.
Once again, on the central wall, in our line of sight like the last two rooms, was a hero work by Mondrian. I was at once grateful to the curators for highlighting his phenomenal early talent, his harmonious sense of colour and daring compositional strokes, and frustrated that Klint was playing second fiddle. If her botanical drawings had been hung in the Ether room, in visual dialogue with Annie Bessant’s ‘Thought Forms’, teasing out her language of forms and grasp of nature’s interconnectedness, it would have been intoxicating. This would have underscored her giant ten paintings in the last room and demonstrated how she did “think through nature”.
Whilst Klint worked as a professional artist in Stockholm, painting conventional landscapes and portraits, from 1905, she created a secret body of mystical paintings, which she insisted not be seen until 20 years after her death. We had that amazing reveal at the Guggenheim, New York, in 2019, with Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future. Whilst many of her contemporaries, like Mondrian, would publish manifestos to rid their work of representational content, Klint believed her work was not ready to be understood. Tate Modern’s show does showcase key examples of these works, such as the Evolution 1908 and the Tree of Knowledge 1913-15 series. Still, it does not provide us with keys to understanding her spiritual development in such a way that we can see it concerning Mondrian’s abstractions. The exhibition does try to 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, but what it shows is the strength of his specific vision and what he had to omit to express this.
Instead, the low-lit room of Klint’s art history-changing masterpieces was preceded by a solo show of Mondrian’s world-famous monochromatic grids. This gave us insight into the vast, unfathomable difference between the two artists and highlighted their respective trajectories – Mondrian towards abstraction and Klint, who swapped observational drawing for automatic paintings that emerged as figurative – but it did not show us a relationship. But as I say, at the Tate, there is always something to learn, and even if this lesson was how not to do a duo retrospective, it did give me a phenomenal gift, one that I will cherish forever: Mondrian’s secret, but enduring love for flowers in paintings he made throughout his life.
Whilst this show did not succeed in showing a relationship between the two artists, it was clear they were both enthralled by the universal language of nature. What could have served as an exciting connection between the two was this: Klint hid her automatic paintings from the public, and Mondrian also cloistered most of his later drawings and paintings of flowers. This secrecy has as much to do with the modern imperative that every artist must develop a personal style and public art persona as it does with an institutional bias towards certain modes of visual expression. The latter is likely why this was not a blockbuster, era-defining show, and I would love to have a conversation with the curators to find out why, as clearly, the seeds were there. However, it is worth noting that both Mondrian and Klint died in 1944, and neither could have ever known that what they hid from the world would eventually be the very thing that was celebrated.
Words/Photos: Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2023