Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life exhibition review, Tate Modern, London

The premise for this new exhibition is a “weird” one indeed, said Laura Freeman in The Times. On the face of it, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) have little in common: he was a cosmopolitan modernist, she a visionary mystic; he painted “grids, angles, squares, stripes, a lozenge for a bit of light relief”, she “pastels, petals, threads and rainbows”; his paintings are among the most recognisable in all art history, hers were all but ignored until she was reappraised as an abstract pioneer in recent years. The two never met and were completely unaware of each other’s work. Nevertheless, Tate Modern has brought together dozens of paintings by both artists to highlight the parallels between them. 

The show argues that Mondrian and af Klint shared similar motives for forging their very different paths to abstract art: both had a strong interest in “esoteric thought” and worked at a time when “X-rays, radioactivity and atoms” were rendering the invisible visible. In doing so, it gives them equal billing as pioneers of modern art. But despite plenty of special pleading, they make a very “odd couple”. 

You will be left in no doubt that Mondrian was a genius, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Like all the greatest abstract works, his “intercrossed grids and pulses of colour” convince you that “they are inevitable, because they have such inner coherence”. Yet it took him a lot of time and deliberation to arrive at this signature style: early landscapes see him looking hard at post-impressionism and cubism, gradually refining his compositions to their bare essence until cleansed of “real objects” altogether. Mondrian may well have had “mystical religious interests”, but they don’t obviously manifest in his work. Af Klint’s own spiritualist beliefs, meanwhile, are writ large in hers: her W Series from 1913 depicts a “fantastic realm” called the “Tree of Knowledge”, and by 1920 she is painting “tower-like forms with pointy tops”. Put simply, the comparison with one of the great modernists “does her no favours”. 

It’s fair to say that af Klint lacked refinement, said Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. Yet there’s no doubting her originality, however odd the thinking behind it was. Af Klint believed her works were “commissioned” by a “spiritual guide” named Amaliel, and she aimed to “evoke a spiritual transcendence for humanity” through “a coded language of symbol and text” – from “dogs and snails to crosses”. The culmination of this process comes with The Ten Largest, a series of huge paintings depicting world religions in symbolic form, mixing elements of pure abstraction with “botanical forms”. Uneven as it is, this “fascinating, ambitious and memorable show” does much to question the traditional male-dominated narrative of modernist art history.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888, tate.org.uk). Until 3 September