Hilma Af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Form Of Life
Tate Modern, May–Sep/23

Sweden artist Hilma Af Klint was born in 1862, 10 years before the birth of Dutch star artist Piet Mondrian. They died in the same year in 1944 but never met, and neither saw each other’s work. While Mondrian’s art became a brand known outside the art scene, Af Klint’s paintings and watercolours were never exhibited in her lifetime. She only recently started to receive the art world’s attention about ten years ago. While the Stockholm’s Moderna Musset retrospective in 2013 set the first steps for her international acclaim, New York’s Guggenheim exhibition in 2019 was the real landmark for her artistic reputation. The present exhibition at Tate Modern is another successful attempt to shed light on the overlooked artist and take her work seriously. By comparing two artists who received opposite levels of public recognition, this exhibition brings our attention to what they had in common. More than proving that her art was up to his production standards, this show demonstrates that she was chronologically ahead of all the other possible “fathers of abstraction”. In 1907, Af Klint was already creating her abstractions when Mondrian and Kandinsky were making figurative art. The competition of who broke away from representation art first seems irrelevant because, rather than a linear sequence of actions that forms a horizontal line, the history of art looks more like a busy intersection of many lines that cross at different stages and angles. Who did what first might change depending on how we interpret these moments of history. But one thing is certain: Af Klint was at the forefront of the abstraction race, and the current exhibition secures her a place on this podium.

London Art Walk
Piet Mondrian, Evolution, 1911, Oil paint on canvas, triptych, Middle panel: 183 x 87.5 cm, side panels: 178 x 85 cm

Before Mondrian arrived with his famous grids using black lines and primary colours, his practice started as a landscaper. It evolved through painting flowers and trees using a palette of pastels. His deep engagement with the natural world dismantles the idea that geometric abstraction rejects nature. To take Mondrian out of the geometric rational and place him within wild ideas of evolution and spirituality is to create an alternative and more honest version of the history of abstraction. Rather than someone who worked on a preconceived plan of diagrams, Mondrian changed his style all along in the search for integration with the cosmos. His night skies and constellations show he is far from a mechanical artist. He continued to make his floral paintings later in his career. In similar artistic language, Af Klint devoted her life to the quest for spiritual and formal development. In her case, the geometry revealed organic round forms resembling the life cycle and vibrating in colourfully charged floral compositions. Both painters brought a mystical element to their work and had nature as a starting point.

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Exhibition View, Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life, at Tate Modern, London. Photograph: Isabela Galvao / London Art Walk

The Evolution, The WUS/Seven-Pointed Star Series

Tate avoided a contrasting approach and was cautious not to place Af Klint’s works too close to Mondrian’s. However, in the middle of the exhibition (room five), their work appears side by side, allowing them to meet and have a dialogue. In the two last rooms, Mondrian appears in his purest form, with his paintings hanging high and activating the space around them, and Af Klint displays her full power in her monumental Temple series, which closes the show. There is no difference between life and art; they are both a search for spirituality. 

“From now until September, quite possibly, Europe’s most beautiful room will be in London.” Stuart Jeffries for The Guardian on 17/04/2023

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Hilma af Klint, No.13, 1915, Oil paint on canvas, 148.5 x 151

The overlooked woman versus the established man: she was an unconventional artist erased from art history; he stands as an eternal trademark who has left a colossal influence on subsequent generations and became a key figure in the Modernist avant-garde. Both start from nature and leave an essential contribution to abstraction. Even though there is no apparent link connecting these two pioneers, this major exhibition clearly states that they are closer than people thought. It adds complexity to notions of how Modernism began and marks a radical move away from old concepts that have previously prevailed in history books.

Isabela Galvao for London Art Walk
May 2023