They never met or knew of each other’s existence. And yet, Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian shared surprisingly similar artistic journeys and beliefs. She was a Swedish visionary, he was a Dutch modernist. Through their art, they tried to make sense of life beyond earth, using colours, shapes, and symbols, exploring the macrocosm through the microcosm.
In a novel exhibition at the Tate Modern, the connections between these artists are explored, featuring around 250 works, including paintings, drawings, and archival materials. It is to date the largest presentation of af Klint’s work in the UK, shedding light on this long-forgotten artist, and the first major UK exhibition in over 25 years featuring Mondrian’s early work alongside his iconic grid compositions.
Both started out as academically-trained landscape painters. They painted idyllic landscapes and flowers, displayed in the first rooms of the exhibition. While Mondrian preferred to portray single flowers, such as lilies or chrysanthemums, af Klint favoured Nordic flowers, in different life stages. Her watercolours displayed her familiarity with botanical drawings, one of the few professional artistic activities available to women back then.
Mondrian and Af Klint moved on to abstract art in the early 20th century, developing similar visual languages. This, however, didn’t stop their interest in nature. On the contrary, their connection to the natural world grew stronger. In their later works, nature became a means to reinforce the similarity between microcosm and macrocosm, with the idea that the cosmos could be mirrored in the smallest living entities. Not only did af Klint and Mondrian explore life’s meaning through the natural world in their abstract art, but they also shared a similar interest in spiritualism and mysticism, which they incorporated into their compositions.
Af Klint and Mondrian weren’t the only ones interested in the occult. In the early 1890s, the discovery of invisible forces through scientific and technological inventions, such as the microscope or X-rays, revolutionized how society viewed the world. Suddenly, the invisible became visible, and people became interested in an invisible energy connecting all things. Rapid changes in all societal areas encouraged artists to question the nature of the universe through their art.
Across Europe, artists and thinkers turned to spiritual movements such as Theosophy, founded by Helena Blavatsky, a movement to which af Klint and Mondrian belonged. The central gallery immerses viewers into this context, presenting key references such as Goethe’s Colour Theory, Carl Linnaeus’s classification of the natural world, and Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard diagrams, which majorly impacted the art of Mondrian and af Klint. These helped them develop their visual languages, using their art as a way to make sense of the universe.
Af Klint claimed she was a medium and that her work was guided by higher forces. From 1905, she created a secret set of mystical paintings, insisting they shouldn’t be seen in public for at least 20 years after her death. These include the 1908 Evolution and the 1913-1915 Tree of Knowledge series, colourful symbolic paintings, using classic Theosophy symbols such as spirals and snails. The WUS/Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, The Evolution, part of The Paintings for the Temple, are also representative of her experimentations with several visual languages within single works. Mondrian was equally influenced by his spiritual beliefs, although it isn’t as obvious with his famous geometric and minimal brand of painting.
For both artists, abstract art was a way to express the universal through form and colour. They explored the natural and spiritual world through their unique visual languages, challenging the separation between art and life. Af Klint and Mondrian made the invisible visible, influenced by an ethereal worldview, and would influence generations to come.
Mondrian truly refined his style into complete abstraction from 1914, inspired by his summers spent at an artist’s community in Domburg. From then on, his work consisted of simple colours and horizontal and vertical lines that did not intersect, representing the ‘male’ principle (the spiritual) and the ‘female’ principle (the material). The Dutch painter explored how space and matter could be brought to life in his neo-plastic paintings, with his iconic Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey. By then, he abandoned symbolic paintings and focused on basic principles to represent the universal, using simple geometric shapes and primary colours. As for Af Klint, she remained closer to symbolism, as shown in her 1907 Eros series, using pastel colours, elegant lines, and dynamic forms accompanied by letters and text.
The last room of the exhibition features the Ten Largest, af Klint’s impressive series of 10 vibrant paintings, allegedly commissioned by her spiritual guides. This 1907 body of works represent the stages of life, as the imagery shifts from the microcosm to the macrocosm, using botanical motifs and abstract geometries. The Swedish artist originally planned to build a temple in the form of a spiral, where her paintings would cover the walls, symbolizing a spiritual ascension. Despite their unusually large scales, she produced them in only a few months, overturning contemporary art conventions in terms of colour, form, and scale.
However, while Mondrian became a household name in modern art, Hilma af Klint never exposed her work during her lifetime and was only rediscovered in the 1980s, partly because she was a woman, partly because of her spiritual beliefs. The exhibition at the Tate Modern takes a different stance.
Here, af Klint is no longer a marginal figure. Instead, she is a pioneer of abstract art, long before Wassily Kandinsky. And Mondrian is no longer so mainstream.