I am sure we all remember from school the contrast and compare questions in exam papers. They were a good exercise in objective thinking and presenting your ideas and opinions in a logical way. I think if the questions was contrast and compare Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian (I’m talking here about the Mondrian we all know and love), one would be able to get off to a very good start. The differences are very clear to see and describe. To put it simply, af Klint is all pastel often subtle shades and lots of curves, Mondrian is all prime colours and hard straight lines. On the face of it they couldn’t be more different. Chalk and cheese. We shall see.
This fascinating exhibition, which has just arrived at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague hot-foot from Tate Modern in London, is a bit of an eye opener. Ms af Klint (1862-1944) and Mr Mondrian (1872–1944) in their early years – we are talking about the first two decades of the last century – were interested in plants and flowers and the beginning of the exhibition has dozens of almost botanical studies by both artists of flowers and plants as water colours, drawings and finished oil paintings – although it must be said that af Klint’s drawings were much more botanical than the Dutch artist’s.
Around 1908 Mondrian became fascinated by trees, by their mystical powers, almost to the point of obsession. The Swedish painter also believed in the mystic powers of nature. After the death of her sister in 1880, she became interested in spirituality, which was also reflected in her art. While studying at the Academy in Stockholm, she met like-minded and spiritual women with whom she formed the group De fem (The Five) with her work becoming very personal and esoteric.
Around this time both artists, who never actually met, were painting fairly conventional landscapes, probably because they could be sold more easily than the abstract work that was beginning to emerge from their studios. Af Klint is often cited as one of the creators of abstract art and by the middle of the 1900s she had already established a fairly recognisable style. Her major series of large canvases from around 1908 clearly demonstrate the direction in which she was heading.
Mondrian’s work was also becoming more abstract at this time, although often still based on landscapes. However, six or seven years later the seeds of what was to become his signature style were already beginning to sprout and by 1919 the first joined-up squares in bright colours appeared. Oddly enough, a few years before, af Klint was also painting coloured squares and the two series of watercolours entitled The Ether Convolute and Parsifal of 1916 could easily have been tentative first steps by Mondrian. Her series of small oils from 1920 employing thickly applied paint to create geometric shapes one could almost believe to be early works by Mondrian. That same year the Dutch artist had already established the style that was to make his name and for which he would always be known. 1920 seems to have been and important year for both artists and it was then that af Klint painted what, for me, was the most impressive room in the show, the series of large square oils entitled The Swan.
It was also fascinating to see the small works and odds and ends of documentation in the small alcoves in the corridor that runs along one side of the upstairs gallery where the show is mounted.
Not quite a stroke of genius to bring these two, on the face of it, unlikely artists together in an exhibition, but almost. It must be said that I am not the greatest of Mondrian fans and I was not familiar with the work of Hilma Af Klint, but this show demonstrates that preconceptions can be, usually are, misguided, that two things which at first sight seem miles apart can, surprisingly, have many things in common. It turned out comparing of Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian was a much more satisfying and easier task than contrasting them. Michael Hasted 6th October 2023