Liam Peress

Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life

Abstract art. A phrase that seems to confuse and perturb many audiences. How often have you heard the phrases “that’s not real art”, “I don’t get it”, or “anyone could have painted that”? In my experience I have listened to many people who voiced similar opinions and, when I was younger, even thought so myself. But I never stopped to wonder what led to the advent of the abstract movement and its connection to modernism. I am an English literature student, so it is easy for me to comprehend it in terms of the modernist movement that defined the early 20th century. At the dawn of a new industrialised and scientifically advanced era the arts needed new methods to capture the rapid changes that were occurring in society. The main innovation in literature was the stream-of-consciousness narrative which was writing that aimed to mimic the process of human thought as accurately as possible. Often characterised by loose grammar, incoherent sentences, and non-sensical trains-of-thought it could almost be seen as abstract writing, or at least a rejection of 19 th century realism. My impression of the Tate Modern exhibit Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life was that both these artists were attempting to achieve something similar.

When one thinks of Piet Mondrian, it undoubtably invokes his famous series of paintings with the straight black lines that form the outlines for the white, gray, red, yellow, and blue squares. As for Hilma af Klint, an artist I was unfamiliar with before I attended the exhibit, the Tate explains that she may have been the first abstract artist, a title that often gets attributed to Kandinsky, which makes the viewer appreciate the history they are witnessing. However, the Tate makes you start at the beginning of both artists’ careers, a time when neither of them were painting abstract works. This is the start of a narrative the museum takes the viewer on that shows the progression both artists make from landscape to abstract painters. The works in the first room seem like extraordinarily ordinary landscape compositions. This is not a detriment to them, they are still wonderful pieces to observe, and I found them quite comforting to stare into a familiar pastoral scene. It almost made me forget that I was about to embark on a journey through increasingly more surreal exhibits.

The next room moves the viewer gradually along to the artists’ next stage of paintings which the museum labels “Evolution”. Both still interested in nature, Mondrian and af Klint shift away from their straightforward depictions of landscape and explore alternate ways to depict the natural world. Mondrian still opts to paint landscapes but when he does, he is experimenting with colour and style to paint a natural scene that is recognisable in terms of the objects he paints but the familiarity stops there. He utilises vibrant blues and oranges to create eerily beautiful scenery that are reminiscent of dawn or dusk. Just like dawn and dusk being the liminal states between night and day, this reflects the liminal stage in Mondrian’s works where he is beginning to evolve into the abstract painter that defined his career. On the other hand, af Klint produces more avant-garde pieces where, as the Tate explains, she begins to represent spirituality. Her paintings become geometric, often dividing themselves into sections that symbolise different stages of a human’s spiritual essence. Sometimes she shows a human overlapping these sections, showing the multitude of layers in a person’s being. Other works do not have an identifiable human form which invites the viewer to transpose themselves onto the piece and reflect on their own spirituality. Her shift is much more dramatic which sets a precedence for the rest of the exhibit.

In the next section the viewer is led on to is called “Metamorphosis” which highlights both artists’ representations of flowers. As informed by the exhibit, Mondrian prefers to paint domestic flowers which helps foreshadow his later work. The domestic subject exists in a much more rigid form of life which mirrors the rigidity of his later line paintings. The flowers themselves are linear and tame, clearly denoting them as cultivated rather than wild. It creates some sense of tension between the natural and human world as new technological advances seek to make humanity masters of nature. Here Mondrian is depicting how nature is being forced to fit in to a new form of industrialisation that has little tolerance for the wild unpredictability of the natural world. In contrast to this, af Klint paints wildflowers, ones that are native to Scandinavia as the Tate notes. These pieces are clearly not being restricted by humans and seem to be standing in defiance of modern industrial society. Her paintings are also quite realistic rather than abstract, partly because the museum explains that af Klint was familiar with botanical illustrations, but it also seems like a return to realism, perhaps because the natural world is easy to represent whereas the human world is not so straightforward and needs to be defined in more abstract terms.

Following on from flowers, the next showroom is dedicated to both artists’ paintings of trees. This is a furtherance of their fascination with natural forms and they both work on their own abstract styles. Mondrian continues to use bold lines and colours that begin to feel like the origin for his distinctive style. Here the viewer gets a sense of how he later transitions to the
complete abstract works that he is remembered for. Similarly, af Klint hones her own style which the viewer has started to become accustomed to. The spiritual symbolism is still present in her depictions of trees, and she is still sectionalising her work. This becomes a nice example of how af Klint was painting abstract works before the likes of Mondrian and other prolific artists.

After the pieces on trees, the next room is titled “Dynamic Color” where both artists really start to delve into painting the unrecognisable. This is where the museum first shows the viewer Mondrian’s work with squares. Here he is experimenting with how to use squares and straight lines to create geometric patterns that have a sense of regularity to them. Although they may seem randomly placed at first, it becomes clear that each square, line, and colour was chosen deliberately and gives the whole piece order and structure. These are the forerunners to his most famous paintings but also show the leap he took from depicting landscapes and flora to subjects that bear no resemblance to the natural world. Here af Klint continues to use her characteristic painting style to create much more fluid images and a diverse range of shapes. This is part of The Eros Series. Although they also are not based in reality, her forms remind the viewer of various natural forms such as flowers and leaves and, as the Tate notes, tries to represent “male” and “female” forces. Her work is developing on her previous abstract pieces and shows her progression, as opposed to Mondrian where this is the first instance of the viewer seeing his abstract work.

Keeping with the theme of spirituality, the next room, called “World Religions”, is designated to a series of paintings by af Klint that is titled Series II. Here she is representing religions in their different stages of development, drawing on her connection to Theosophy. These consist of circles broken into sections which mark a break from her usual style of painting. First of all, she does not use colour for most of them and paints in black and white. This contrasts her other work the viewer has seen up to this point because a lot of her works used various pastel colours to accentuate their segments. However, by only using black and white she creates a much more binary representation of spirituality. She does not seem to be singling out a particular religion, so it seems to homogenise their process of development. The last two in the series that do use colour utilise it conservatively by using a limited range of them. Purple is the main colour she uses which replaces the black and she also paints outside of the circle, whereas in the black and white pieces everything was contained inside the circle. This sudden shift represents an end or a breaking free from the developmental stages and into a new fully formed religion.

The next exhibit is another room that is dedicated to af Klint called “New Old Geometries”. One of her series shown here is The Swan which shows a struggle between a black and a white swan. Being painted between 1914-1915, a time when the world was consumed by war, the conflict imagery becomes apparent, as there are two clear opposing sides. The Tate also informs the viewer that the swan is a popular occultist image which is in keeping with the spiritual theme of the previous exhibit. Here, the swans transform from their recognisable form into abstract shapes that extend the imagery further.

What follows next contrasts the highly symbolic works that af Klint has been painting in the room labeled “Space and Rhythm”. Here, the viewer sees for the first time the classic line and square paintings that defined Mondrian as an artist. The museum states that by this point he had given up symbolism in his compositions in favour of “jazz rhythms”. By creating artwork that is so detached from reality he creates a democratic series of paintings that can be appreciated by all people, no matter their background. One piece in this exhibit is a three-dimensional stage model which helps his artwork transcend the barrier between art and reality. This creates a much more immersive and universal experience for any audience. His other two-dimensional works also help construct a universal exhibition because the museum explains that Mondrian was attempting to simplify art into its most basic principles. By only using lines and primary colours Mondrian paints in the most fundamental terms which aims to make the viewer appreciate the essence of art rather than the subject it seeks to depict.

The museum brings the two artists back together again in the next room called “Confluences”. Here, the Tate singles out af Klint’s inspiration from Theosophy again from her series called Parsifal. This consists of a string of brightly coloured squares with various other shapes and words the peripherals of the painting. This is the most simplistic abstract work the viewer has seen by af Klint so far and it seems to be a break from her regular style. They all have a commonality in the square at the centre of the piece but vary slightly in the colour of the square and what is painted outside of it. This creates a progression for the viewer to follow and perhaps suggests a merging between spirituality and art to create a higher form of artistic expression. The
two pieces by Mondrian in this exhibit are later works and one uses yellow lines that seem to break out of the canvas, differing from his early works where he only used black lines. He also returns to paining flowers, only this time more abstractly. His piece Rose in a Glass uses similar colours to the Parsifal series which establishes a neat link between the two. While still abstract, it is more realistic than his other works, by having a recognisable subject, and acts as a semi-conclusion to Mondrian for the viewer which returns them to some semblance of reality.

The penultimate display is titled “The Future” which is devoted to af Klint’s series The Ten Largest, a group of paintings that are supposed to capture the stages of life. She uses various shapes and swirls which aim to reflect botanical forms, according to the museum, which makes the process of life more universal than individual. The massive size of these pieces suggests the grandeur of life itself and makes this section one of the more impressive rooms in the exhibition in terms of scale. Each painting is unique with the different colours and shapes she uses which helps complete an entire picture of the life cycle. A poetic end to an exhibition called Forms of Life, this seems to be the point that it was leading the viewer toward, summarising the narrative the exhibit was trying to tell.

To end the experience, the museum has the viewer go through a room called “The Ether”. This has some more works by af Klint and Mondrian but also pieces by other 19th and 20th century artists that contributed to the cultural environment they were working in. This is an effective way to end because it makes the viewer aware that abstract art did not form itself in a vacuum but was the product of significant scientific discoveries and spiritual reactions to them. It brings the practice of abstract art into focus and makes clear why it arose when it did. It forms the end of the journey that hopefully explains the origin and nature of abstract art and makes the prospect of it less confusing. The way the Tate lays out this exhibition makes it a fantastic way to engage with visual art, for both art novices and aficionados.


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