When I first entered Tate Modern’s new exhibition pairing Piet Mondrian with Hilma af Klint, it was with strong scepticism. On the sly, paired shows of this kind have become a trend among art institutions. In London, where it has been spearheaded mostly by the Royal Academy, we’ve seen Dalí with Duchamp, Michelangelo with Bill Viola and Tracey Emin with Edvard Munch. Currently on at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is Manet with Degas, while touring across Australia you’ll find the double alliteration of Robert Rauschenberg with Jasper Johns.
The main argument for paired shows is that they allow you, the gallerygoer, to compare and contrast; you gain a better understanding of one artist by how they relate to another. As GK Chesterton once said on the virtues of monogamy: “It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
But, like marriage, it is not always a perfect match. It seems fair to put Manet with Degas when the two were friends, though maybe it’s also a little too obvious. Then again, does Bill Viola—a contemporary American video artist—have much truck with Michelangelo, when the two occupy such different times and places?
Perhaps the success of the Tate’s latest pairing is in how its two artists straddle this delicate line between usual suspects and complete strangers. Though occupying the same moment in art history (they were born a decade apart and both died in 1944), af Klint and Mondrian never met and, by all accounts, were unaware of each other’s work. Yet both went through a similar artistic evolution, starting out at established national academies, making landscapes and botanical studies, before a decisive turn to abstraction. Unlike many of their modernist peers, they were left cold by the utopian promise of heavy industry and instead drawn to spirituality, ecology and nature. Both joined lodges of the Theosophical Society, an esoteric religious order that believes all world faiths are underpinned by a “core spiritual truth”.
Given these parallel lives, it is fascinating to see how differently af Klint and Mondrian came to their own interpretations of what were, in essence, the same philosophies. Mondrian looked to reduce everything he saw to what he considered its purest possible form, culminating in the late 1910s with the “neoplastic” grids of black lines and blocks of primary colour that have become synonymous with his name. In contrast, af Klint’s work never completely abandoned its botanical starting point: symmetrical forms and repeated motifs hint at a meaning deeply embedded somewhere, at some point, within humanity’s past.
The most compelling thing that af Klint and Mondrian tell us about each other, however, is more political than aesthetic in nature. Mondrian, who mixed with the right crowds in Paris and New York, was art establishment through and through; his legacy as an artist of the avant-garde was secured while he was still alive. Af Klint, by contrast, rarely left her native Sweden and worked in obscurity, with her art only coming to wider public attention some 80 years after her death, at a show at the Guggenheim in 2019. The hypocrisy is only evident in hindsight: the spirituality of Mondrian’s work gave kindling to those eager to praise him at the time, while the spirituality of af Klint’s was used to dismiss her as a mystical crank. (It is telling that Mondrian believed the “male principle” of existence was spiritual, whereas the “female principle” was material.)
These two artists, for all their similarities, were working against different odds. Af Klint did not start with botanical drawing out of inclination, but because this was considered the only art that women could produce; the admittance of women to the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm was forbidden until 18 years before she attended. That she was able, throughout her development, to create work as groundbreaking and original as Mondrian—who never faced any such limits on his ambition—makes her all the more extraordinary. It is she who emerges here, after this exercise of intense comparison, as the better artist.
The Tate is surely aware of this, too, because it’s af Klint’s monumental Paintings for the Temple series from 1906 onwards—a good 10 years before Mondrian began his neoplastic grids—that have the final say at the show. You could sit in this room for hours. Giant blossoming circles, soft gradients of colour, the sworls of snails’ shells, jumping lines of jittery string… amazing! Mondrian was great, but he was of his time. Af Klint was well ahead of hers.
Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is on display at Tate Modern, London, until 3rd September