Art exhibition review: Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life at Tate Modern

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. THE first question you have is why put these two artists together: they never shagged, met, or even knew about each other. They were of the same generation, both started in landscapes and both used oils, end of. Where Tate Modern is brilliant is how every exhibition is also a cohesive narrative, succinct and accessible, leaving even the noob enlightened. And Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is no exception. Featuring around 250 works, including paintings, drawings and archival materials, the show puts these two visionary painters in close dialogue for the first time and by doing so it reveals how their art reflected radical new ideas, theories and scientific discoveries in an era of rapid social change.

Mondrian dress Tate Modern collage

Photos by Michael Melia

The key here is exactly that, how two totally separate artists subjected to the same intellectual currents, could respond in such contrasting ways. Tate Modern has bothered to source all kinds of realia of their time; books on popular spirituality, scientific treatises and sketchbooks of other artists, to show just what kind of a broiling pot Europe was. Their generation was having to totally rethink their understanding of the world, as Creation went from a week to billions of years and the invisible world of the Electromagnetic Spectrum knocked out the Elements.

press view for the exhibition Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life, at Tate Modern, London. Pictured are (L-R) Monica Costa and Madeleine Neave from London Mums, beside Piet Mondrian's Composition with Red, Black, Yellow, Blue and Grey. This is the largest presentation of Hilma af Klint's work in the UK to date, with highlights including all ten of her monumental paintings from the series The Ten Largest 1907, presented together in the UK for the first time. It is also the first major UK exhibition in over 25 years to highlight

The press view for the exhibition Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life, at Tate Modern, London. Pictured are (L-R) Monica Costa and Madeleine Neave from London Mums, beside Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Black, Yellow, Blue and Grey. This is the largest presentation of Hilma af Klint’s work in the UK to date, with highlights including all ten of her monumental paintings from the series The Ten Largest 1907, presented together in the UK for the first time. It is also 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. It brings together his surprising figurative paintings such as The Red Cloud 1907 and Evolution 1911 as well as early abstract experiments like Composition in colour B 1917, shining a new light on one of the most celebrated modern artists. The exhibition opens to the public on 20 April and runs until 3 September 2023. Photograph by Johnny Green

The paintings chart the artists’ inner journey from safe impressionism to hallucinatory exploration. This bit really got me: they weren’t rejecting nature in their abstractions, but trying to reconnect with it, informed by the scientific breakthroughs of the time.

So what’s the end result? Mondrian went geometric – all straight lines and angles – as we know. Do not expect great quantities of his work, he’s more of a bait, to give a platform for this Swedish artist to get some belated recognition.

Hilma af Klint london mums magazine collage

Af Klint on the other hand went organic, preferring eggy, spermy, petaly, whorly and curvy. It made me think of spirographs. In fact her whole style felt naive, as if she had stripped away all the established intellectual clutter and was approaching nature with a fresh childish mind. Sod t-shirts and totes (although they are beautiful), I could see her designs looking wonderful on diaphanous clothing, underwear, wedding veils. TATE should get serious with Fashion.

My only gripe would be the departure of Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern. After she sweetly admired my Mondrian-inspired dress, I thought I might mosey up to her and ask what the fresh pastures are looking like. Of course books, lectures, but she breathed in, lighting up at the prospect, ‘holidays and less pressure’.

 

Madeleine Neave (MN): ‘Do you have any choice words for your successor? ‘

Frances Morris (FM): ‘Love. Nurture. Challenge.’

 

MN: ‘Challenge, as in, your own institution?’

FM: ‘Definitely, we must never get complacent.’

 

MN: ‘You could be describing motherhood.’

FM ‘Yes, leadership skills overlap with mothering.’

 

What a gem. It just goes to show you don’t need a psycho bitch/bastard at the helm, and I’ve known a few.

 

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