Many art museums have been making a concerted effort in recent months to increase visibility of women artists, with Tate Modern putting on a critically-acclaimed retrospective of Lubaina Himid last year, and Tate Britain showing the exquisite portraits of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The 2022 Venice Biennale was curated by a woman – Cecilia Alemani – showcased an unprecedented majority of women artists, and in the same year Katy Hessel’s ground-breaking book ‘The Story of Art Without Men’ put women artists back in the picture through a rewrite of Gombrich’s male-dominated history of art.
Tate continues to promote the work of women artists with a vast retrospective of Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz titled ‘Every Tangle of Thread and Rope’ at Tate Modern, where a new exhibition has recently opened featuring an unlikely pairing of Swedish spiritualist artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) with Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).
While Mondrian is an instantly recognisable art world fixture, af Klint was relatively unknown until the last decade. She died in 1944 and had stipulated that her work couldn’t be shown for 20 years, which partly explains why her paintings weren’t more familiar until 2013, when Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in Stockholm mounted a well-received travelling retrospective, leading to an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York 6 years later that became the museum’s most popular exhibition with a record-breaking 600,000 visitors. A 2020 documentary about the elusive artist saw interest in her work peak, and now Tate Modern are showing a vast selection of af Klint’s canvases and drawings.
Af Klint and Mondrian never met in person, and it’s disputed whether Mondrian – a pioneer of abstraction who was instrumental in promoting the art form in America and Europe – was aware of her work. Af Klint and Mondrian both invented their own languages of abstract art rooted in nature. The Tate Modern exhibition claims, “at the heart of both of their artistic journeys was a shared desire to understand the forces behind life on earth”.
What’s interesting about the Tate Modern exhibition is the revelation that Mondrian was a keen landscape and flora painter before moving in the direction of abstract painting. Af Klint also began her career as a landscape painter, and at the start of the exhibition is a display of Mondrian’s landscapes and flower paintings juxtaposed with af Klint’s landscapes and botanical watercolours. These representational images lead on to more enigmatic works by af Klint in which natural forms become a pathway to abstraction.
The exhibition explores the shared interest of both artists in spirituality, philosophy and new ideas of scientific discovery. Af Klint was also a medium that believed that spirit guides were telling her what to paint, and the exhibition features the vast, otherworldly canvases she claimed were commissioned by ‘higher powers’, including ‘The Paintings for the Temple’, which she created between 1906 to 1915. Af Klint believed her spiritual guide ‘Amaliel’ told her to make the paintings. Amaliel was one of the ‘High Masters’ (five guides) who communicated with af Klint and her spiritual collective, known as ‘The Five’.
The exhibition curators – Nabila Abdel Nabi, Bryony Der, Frances Morris and Laura Stamps – explain in the catalogue:
Both af Klint and Mondrian were interested in the spiritual ideas and beliefs associated with what is called esotericism, a concoction of belief systems that attracted many artists in those febrile years the fin de siecle merged into the first decade of the new century. In a way, we could see this period as an old ‘new age’ where, rather than retrogressive, these ideas were seen to be at the cutting edge of what it meant to be modern, with many promoters of occult beliefs drawing liberally on the new scientific and technological discoveries of the time.
In 1920 af Klint created ‘Series II’, a group of geometrical artworks featuring circles and crosses inspired by different religions including Theosophy. Af Klint was a member of the Stockholm Theosophical Society and Mondrian was also interested in Theosophy, joining the Theosophical Society in Amsterdam in 1909. Mondrian wrote in a sketchbook: “All religions have the same fundamental content; they differ only in form. The form is the external manifestation of this content and is thus an indispensable vehicle for the expression of primary principles.’
‘Forms of Life’ is an unexpected and hugely intriguing pairing of two of the most important pioneers of abstract art.
Hilma Af Klint and Piet Mondrian ‘Forms of Life’ is at Tate Modern until 3rd September, 2023: tate.org.uk