Galleries love putting work by different artists ‘in conversation’ (ie, side by side). Which is a shame, because it almost never works, and almost always ends up with less of a conversation and more of a shouting match. But that hasn’t stopped the Tate from trying anyway and whacking together Dutch modernist supremo Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Swedish abstract spiritualist Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944)
You can sort of see why they thought it might work. Both artists were born at a similar time, in similar places, both evolved unique abstract visual languages, and both were fascinated by nature and ecology. But as it says right at the start of this show: ‘they didn’t know each other – or of the other’s work’. That means you spend the whole show trying to figure out what links the Tate is drawing between the two, attempting to follow imagined conceptual parallels, and disentangling curatorial choices instead of just enjoying the thrill of getting up close to big hits by Mondrian or losing yourself in the psychedelic swirls of af Klint.
A visual system for thinking about the interconnectedness of all things
There are some stunning works on display, though. Af Klint’s ‘Tree of Knowledge’ watercolours are geometric, pseudoscientific explorations of the oneness of life, all spirals and angels and stamens and pistils. Her ‘Eros’ series of pink pastel petals and curving writing are bright and joyous, and then there’s her enormous ‘Paintings for the Temple’ series, with its endless swooping lines smashing together at the intersection of the botanical, the biological and the spiritual. Her’s is the art of myth, love and spirituality; a private, personal visual system for thinking about oneness and the interconnectedness of all things.
Mondrian thought kind of similarly. He painted trees too, and flowers, but as the Tate points out ‘not as an element of the real world, but as “plastic expression”’. So as aesthetics, not as spiritualism. Nature gave Mondrian a visual path to follow, a launch pad. Trees could be split into simple interactions of vertical and horizontal lines, stars into grids of white, yellow, blue and red. He took nature and boiled it down and down and down into its barest elements. His 1913 ‘Composition with Colour Planes’ is stunning and simple, his image of advertising hoardings is dark and grimy, and then there are all the classic grid paintings you’ve already seen a billion times.
There’s plenty to like and love by both artists here. But Hilma deserves to be celebrated on her own terms, not viewed through the prism of Mondrian. And Piet, well, who would say no to a whole exhibition of his work. This could, and should, have just been two different exhibitions. Oneness isn’t always a good thing.