A fascinating exhibition entitled Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian – Forms of Life opened at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague at the beginning of October after a successful run at Tate Modern in London. To accompany the exhibition(s) there is a splendid book/catalogue edited by Nabila Abdel Nabi, Briony Fer and Laura Stamps. Originally published in English by Tate Modern, it is also available in hardback (in Dutch) published by the excellent Hannibal Books, a fine art publisher in Belgium. The 240-page book consists mainly of fine reproductions accompanied by essays by the three editors. Both editions are available in The Netherlands.
At first sight there seems very little to connect these two artists, so it may seem an odd pairing for a major exhibition. The Swedish Hilma af Klint and the Dutch Piet Mondrian (I’m talking here about the Mondrian we all know and love) were, on the face of it, very different painters – af Klint all pastel, often subtle shades and lots of curves, Mondrian all prime colours and hard straight lines. Surprisingly, as Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian – Forms of Life reveals, they had much more in common than perhaps one would initially think.
Ms af Klint (1862-1944) and Mr Mondrian (1872–1944) were, in their early years, interested in plants and flowers as the dozens of almost botanical studies by both artists demonstrate. Each produced water colours, drawings and finished oil paintings – although af Klint’s illustrations were much more botanical and proficient than the Dutchman as the reproductions in the book clearly show. However, it must be said, neither artist was a great draughtsman.
In the first decade of the twentieth century both artists, who never actually met, were painting fairly conventional landscapes, probably because they could be sold more easily than the innovative work that was beginning to emerge from their studios. Af Klint is often cited as one of the creators of abstract art and by about 1905 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 less representational at this time, although often still recognisable as 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. One could almost believe that her series of small oils from 1920, employing thickly applied paint to create geometric shapes, were early works by the Dutch artist. Coincidentally, that same year Mondrian had already established the style that was to make his name and for which he would always be known.
Hilma af Klint is still relatively unknown to the general public but her retrospective at the Guggenheim was one of their most visited exhibitions in 2018–2019, so she was clearly right when she believed that her work could only be understood by people from the future. On the other hand, everyone knows Mondrian, or at least, his unmistakable paintings. His influence, even now, touches every aspect of life in The Netherlands and further afield, from architecture to fashion, from sweet wrappers to make-up packaging. But, as Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian Forms of Life demonstrates, there was much more to the Dutch artist than just the bright colours and hard black lines.
The book, although essentially a catalogue, certainly stands in its own right as a complete and comprehensive appraisal of two contemporary and innovative artists of the early twentieth-century. If you can’t see the show, the book will provide you with everything you need to know. If you do see/or have seen the exhibition, it will provide a very worthwhile companion.
Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life Edited by Nabila Abdel Nabi, Briony Fer and Laura Stamps
Available in Dutch (as Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Levensvormen) post free from Hannibal Books, or from Amazon
Publisher Hannibal Books, Belgium
Hardcover 240 pages
Dimensions 24.6 x 2.7 x 29.7 cms
or in English (paperback) edition from Amazon
Publisher Tate Publishing, UK
Dimensions: 24.3 x 2.3 x 29.4 cms