Hilma af Klint, 1862-1944, born in Danderyd, Sweden, and Piet Mondrian, 1872- 1944, born in Amersfoort, Netherlands: both were classically-trained, both developed a radical new style of painting, however the two were never to meet. Mondrian’s geometric grids and Af Klint’s swirling symbols would logically place them worlds apart, however the Tate Modern’s Forms of Life demonstrates how both artists arrived at abstraction through a study of nature with beliefs of a higher reality. The exhibition aims to show that the world of the abstract is not simply a rejection of natural appearance, but rather a new way of expressing art’s interconnectivity with all forms of life.
The ground-breaking novelty of what both these artists were trying to do is conveyed through a comparison of their early works. We see how delicate but unassuming landscapes quickly progress into radical – at that time and still today – studies of the spiritual realm. These lesser-known works, almost indistinguishable from each other, are very far removed from both artist’s later styles, but were how both Af Klint and Mondrian made names for themselves.
As a woman, Af Klint would fear far greater scrutiny over her later works and genius, and therefore continued to paint in a naturalistic tradition throughout her career, alongside her abstractions, unlike Mondrian, whose lilies and chrysanthemums quickly dissipated into a balancing-act of horizontals and verticals.
Mondrian abandoned symbolism in an attempt to experience life through art, while Klint worked to create a universal language which would depict the natural. Though effective in demonstrating how both artists experimented with similar subject matter in order to develop their own languages, this is a controversial comparison – the artists hardly share a room, let alone a wall.
In trying to do both artists justice, as well as offer an explanation for Modern art, the Tate aims to do too much. The captions, which are supposed to enlighten, are often inaccessible and overwhelming in number, leaving Mondrian’s grids no less esoteric than Af Klint’s vocabulary of petals, suns, and planets.
Nevertheless the works speak for themselves. The final room brings us face to face with Af Klint’s The Ten Largest – the culmination of her search to conceptualise the world through shape and colour. These works feel contemporary, ahead of their time and are the reason Klint has experienced such fame in recent years. Generating a state of awe and wonder, these giant canvases are spread across all four walls, engulfing the viewer in a sea of shapes and colour – overwhelming both in size and concept, their evocative colours really do seem to express the stages of life.
Af Klint asked that, after her death, her work should not be shown in public for another 20 years – she believed that those in the future might be more receptive, and this premonition was right. Despite the controversial comparison, Forms of Life encapsulates the thought processes employed by the artists. It is interesting to ponder, not only what the world of art may have looked like had it been shaped by Af Klint rather than Mondrian, but also how this anti-establishment artist would have felt exhibited next to his work.
With thanks to Nelly Laycock for this review.