The mystical, biological and parallel worlds of Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian

With the opening of a new exhibition that examines the connections between the two pioneers of abstraction, Jessica Lack reveals how their esoteric spiritual preoccupations compelled them towards finding new ways of making art

Left, Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation. Right, Piet Mondrian, Metamorphosis, 1908

Left, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation. Right, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Metamorphosis, 1908. Kunstmuseum Den Haag

When Piet Mondrian danced, he kept his back perfectly straight and used his arms to throw neat geometric shapes like a Nineties raver. He was, by all accounts, an enthusiastic foxtrotter and later loved jazz, mirroring its broken chords, dissonant harmonies and irregular tempos in right angles and abrupt changes in direction. This lively behaviour doesn’t entirely fit with the accepted version of the cool modernist — severe, solitary, living one painted square at a time.

Challenging long-established narratives, however, is one of the themes of the exhibition Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life  at Tate Modern in London. The show places the Dutch avant-gardist in dialogue with the Swedish mystic painter Hilma af Klint, and the results promise much alchemy.

Piet Mondrian, circa 1909, photo by Alfred Waldenburg

Piet Mondrian, circa 1909. Photo: Alfred Waldenburg. Collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague

There are, on the face of it, few connections to be made here. The two artists were born a decade apart: af Klint into a wealthy, minor aristocratic family of naval cartographers in Stockholm; Mondrian to a schoolteacher in the mizzle-soaked environs of Amersfoort in the Netherlands (the schoolhouse in which he grew up is now a museum dedicated to the great man). The pair never met and were, by all accounts, unaware of each other’s existence.

They were, however, fellow travellers on the strange, astral path of Theosophical enlightenment. Theosophy was an occult movement that espoused belief in the mystic powers of life and matter, and a cosmic connection to other spiritual realms.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 3, Youth, 1907

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), The Ten Largest, Group IV, No. 3, Youth, 1907. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation

Af Klint was the first of the two to join the Theosophical Society, in 1904, following an encounter with a spirit guide (more on that later). Mondrian joined in 1909 after reading Edouard Schuré’s The Great Initiates. Both found in Theosophy’s universalism a way of linking two contradictory notions of time: the slow evolution of the natural world and the fast-paced energy of modern life.

Surprisingly, this attraction to the esoteric was born out of the artists’ early training in biology. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, af Klint worked in the city’s veterinary institute as an illustrator, depicting dissected animals for medical journals.

Hilma af Klint in her studio, circa 1895

Hilma af Klint in her studio, circa 1895. Photo: Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation

Mondrian, who trained at the Rijksakadamie in Amsterdam, was hired by the University of Leiden to make magnified drawings of bacterial pathogens. This close observation of zoological and biological forms gave the artists a keen interest in the invisible laws of nature. Both continued to make detailed examinations of plants throughout their lives, Mondrian producing a nice line in chrysanthemums and dahlias, and af Klint documenting mosses, lichens and wild flowers.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Red Amaryllis with Blue Background, 1909-10. Private Collection

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), Botanical Drawing, circa 1890. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation

While Mondrian is often considered a pioneer of abstraction, af Klint was in fact the first of the two to colonise this field. As a teenager, she attended seances run by the Swedish artist and medium Bertha Valerius. Then, in 1886, while in her early twenties, she reported her first direct encounter with the spirit world.

By 1906 she was in communication with a series of spectral voices that encouraged her to draw astral images — a collection of biomorphic and abstract forms featuring looping spirals, seedpods, mandalas and unearthly pyramids in pastel washes. These mediumistic images were, she said, her bridge to the spirit world.

Hilma af Klint, The Evolution, The WUS Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, No.15, 1908

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), The Evolution, The WUS Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VI, No.15, 1908. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation

Mondrian also hoped to transcend the limits of the physical realm by means of abstraction. The discovery of Cubism in Paris was his way through. Using colour, shape and line, he strived to create an art that reflected a state of perfect equilibrium.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Black, Yellow, Blue and Grey, 1921

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Composition with Red, Black, Yellow, Blue and Grey, 1921. Kunstmuseum Den Haag

For years, Mondrian’s spiritual philosophy has been glossed over as too weird, too esoteric and too cosmic to fit into the rigorous narrative of modern art. However, his wide-ranging views on natural history, spiritualism and fin-de-siècle religions such as Rosicrucianism were integral to his vision of a utopian modern art.

As a young man in Amsterdam, Mondrian was a regular visitor to the phrenologist Alfred Waldenburg — who no doubt appreciated the artist’s generously proportioned cranium. Like af Klint, Mondrian was a keen follower of Rudolf Steiner: both artists wrote to the anthroposophist for guidance and received little encouragement in return. Steiner had room for only one ego, it seemed — his own.

Works such as Charles Leadbeater’s theosophical treatise Occult Chemistry, as well as Steiner’s cosmic description of an organic symmetry that could be aesthetically and philosophically relevant, appealed to artists trying to make sense of the modern world.

Recent scientific discoveries had revealed the existence of subatomic particles and the elements radium and polonium — giving form to the concept of a ‘luminiferous ether’ for the propagation of light. Research into the depths of the oceans had shown not, as traditionally thought, a limitless, lifeless abyss, but a sea floor teeming with life.

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, The SUW Series, Group IX: Part 1, No. 19, 1914-15

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), The Swan, The SUW Series, Group IX: Part 1, No. 19, 1914-15. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation

Mondrian and af Klint understood that this life-force, which sparked the growth of plants and every other kind of organism, could not be represented in conventional landscape painting. As af Klint wrote in her journal: ‘I am an atom in the universe that has access to infinite possibilities of development. These possibilities of development I want, gradually, to reveal.’

In her will, af Klint requested that her paintings, notebooks and writings be kept from public view for at least 20 years after her death, when, she hoped, audiences might be ready to embrace her planetary aesthetic. In the event, her work was only rediscovered in the 1980s, and it has taken a further 40 years to reconcile her spiritual approach to abstraction with the history of modern art.

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What this exhibition reveals is that, far from being an outlier, af Klint’s esoteric concerns were central to the birth of modernism; and the origin story of abstract art is a far more complex one than was first believed. Af Klint and Mondrian wanted to convey life’s vital energy and its hidden forces, and they created a radical new language to do so.

Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is at Tate Modern in London from 20 April to 3 September 2023

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