In the middle of the exhibition “Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life,” currently showing at Tate Modern, in London, sits a pair of maquettes that encapsulate the artists’ differences.

When the Dutchman Mondrian arrived in New York in 1940, fleeing first the Nazi occupation of Paris and then the London Blitz, his reputation as one of Europe’s most celebrated artists preceded him. At Tate Modern, a diorama of his studio on East 59th Street from that period shows the stark white two-room apartment covered in configurations of primary-colored cardboard rectangles, like test studies for his geometric paintings.

A neighboring model offers a different kind of architecture for the cohabitation of art and life: “The Temple,” envisioned by the Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint. An impenetrable ten-sided monolith, the never-realized structure was to be made of alabaster, with an astronomical tower and a spiraling internal staircase. Its interior, which was to house 193 paintings transmitted to af Klint by her “High Masters” (spirit guides communed with in séances), can only be imagined.

Outwardly, the lives and artistic ambitions of these two early 20th-century abstractionists, who never met, could also scarcely have been more different. Living in New York, Mondrian was part of the thriving contemporary art scene, dancing to jazz with Lee Krasner and encouraging a skeptical Peggy Guggenheim to exhibit Jackson Pollock.

Af Klint was born in 1862, a decade before Mondrian, and died just months after him, following a streetcar accident in 1944. Obscure in her time, she left behind more than 1,300 works and 125 notebooks. Yet this elegant pairing of the odd couple at Tate Modern argues that the two artists were united by their inward preoccupations.

A historical display at the center of the show elucidates their shared interests and influences — from Theosophy and Anthroposophy to zoology, botany and bacteriology; from atoms, electrons, and X-rays to Jungian psychology and astrology charts. (Mondrian was a Pisces; af Klint, a Scorpio.) Influenced by ideas about space vibrating with invisible connected energies, both artists believed that formal equilibrium and unity were the driving forces of life.

The exhibition unfolds chronologically, loosely asserting that science and mysticism, art and nature, are not unhappy bedfellows, but mutually enriching fields of thought that have long coexisted, particularly in modernist movements. Many will be familiar with the most famous works by both artists, to which the final two rooms are devoted: the refined and austere grid paintings of Mondrian’s later years, and af Klint’s vast and luminous cycle of paintings, “The Ten Largest” (1907), shown to acclaim at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York, in 2018. Direct pairings in the preceding galleries, however, surprise and beguile.

While both artists were academically trained in conventional genres, paintings made in the years just after af Klint and Mondrian joined the Theosophical Society (she in 1904, he in 1909) reflect the creative impact of its esoteric beliefs. Af Klint’s turn from landscapes to abstraction is rapid and assured, her hallmark quivering, indeterminate line, pastel palette and stable of symbols — shells, spirals, concentric ovoids, hearts, lotus flowers, radiating lines — are evident in an early series that charts the evolution of the human soul.

Elsewhere, paintings experiment with optical illusions and changes of state. A 1919 checkerboard composition by Mondrian of chalky hues was intended to reproduce the experience of seeing a starry sky. One painting in af Klint’s 1914-15 series titled “The Swan” shows mirrored black-and-white versions of the bird, while another replaces them with concentric rings of cubes pierced with colorful rays, as if the swans have dissolved into particles.

The most stunning display is a stacked “salon hang” that mixes plant and flower studies by both artists. Mondrian’s wilting charcoal chrysanthemums glint with crystalline patterns, and af Klint’s careful wildflower watercolors echo the sinuous organic abstractions of her spiritual works. Here, the graphic line is life and death, growth and decay, micro and macro, and abstraction is not a repudiation, but a distillation, of nature and its underpinning laws.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise, in 2023, to hear that everything is connected, but in the early 20th century it was a revolution. Mondrian and af Klint believed this complexity could be realized in visual terms: An image might act as a portal to a higher state of being — a means not just to see, but to be differently in the world.

You could consider Tate Modern’s show as giving af Klint her rightful place alongside Mondrian in the story of abstraction, but its implications stretch beyond the walls of the museum. “Those granted the gift of seeing more deeply can see beyond form,” af Klint wrote, “and concentrate on the wondrous aspect hiding behind every form, which is called life.”

Here, the works of Mondrian and af Klint are not just art historical, but ecological — as much of the past as the present — and, even, the future.

Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Signs of Life
Through Sept. 3 at Tate Modern, in London; tate.org.uk.


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