If you’re not sure how the dog, ghost-dog and snail-crucifix in Hilma Af Klint’s painting ‘Evolutionen’ relate to its title, then you’re not alone - neither did the artist. ‘I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict’, Af Klint said; ‘nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.’
Unbounded creativity and a brazen free-spiritedness emanate from Af Klint’s wall-sized works, which the Tate Modern have displayed ‘in conversation’ with the celebrated Dutch abstractionist, Piet Mondrian. The pairing works brilliantly at first. Otherwise unimpressive watercolours of trees and flowers are brought to life when considered as the seeds of a growing interest in abstraction and the depiction of spirituality.
In the following rooms, the connection starts to weaken. Af Klint’s works are so saturated with allusions ranging from alchemy, Christianity and the occult to time, ecology and linguistics that Mondrian starts to feel like a distracting intrusion. His rigid lines and clean opacity seem oddly unimpressive after Af Klint’s swan series, which depicts the union of opposites necessary for the creation of the philosopher’s stone, a substance believed to be capable of turning base metals into gold.
This kind of alchemical context is also rather thin on the ground. For works so heavily imbued with symbolism and reference, background on this evidently eccentric artist and the various belief systems she addresses would be a more useful curatorial focus than her interaction with one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century. Captions do point out an interest in ‘Theosophy’, but it feels like this fascinatingly rich concept has been dropped into a rather forced narrative on abstraction, when it begs to be brought centre-stage.
These hasty, dissatisfying references are brought to an amusing conclusion in the final room, in which we are told rather bluntly that the Af Klint works on display (which surpass the rest of the exhibition in grandeur and originality) were commissioned by a message from the artist’s spiritual guide. That the artist entertained a spiritual guide at all is something we are expected to take unquestioningly. You can’t help but leave feeling like a wonderland of mysticism and sorcery has been rather flattened by Mondrian’s grids.
There is no more dispiriting sign of this than in ‘The Ether’, a section that bills itself as a space for ‘new connections’, ‘conversations’, and other modern reinventions of the word ‘ideas’. The room is essentially a jumble-sale of mystical nik-naks and models of studios, with only a 3D print of Af Klint’s planned spiritual temple marking anything out of the ordinary. The whole exhibition feels a lot like this room - interesting objects neutered by arty newspeak that will, admittedly, make you focus more on the objects themselves, if only to avoid reading the captions.
Leaving the exhibition, there is a pervading sense that you’ve been had. Much was made of how this is an attempt to ‘resurrect’ or ‘rediscover’ a forgotten, much-maligned female artist of great talent - so far so good. But the Tate’s supposed mission is impossible to reconcile with this exhibition’s underlying cynicism. Why bother with Mondrian, an established, canonised male modernist when the aim is to generate some interest in Af Klint?
For all the posturing, the fragile connection between the two is little more than a way to rope Mondrian’s fans into a very expensive exhibition (£20 - unless you’re young, in which case it’s £5). Af Klint, the real star of the show, is then snuck in alongside him. “Surprise! Woman Artist!” If the best the Tate can manage for her ‘rediscovery’ is this, then it has decidedly failed Af Klint, Mondrian, and us gallery-goers. I wish we had been trusted to want to see her on her own.
Which is such a shame, because the art on display is fabulous. Af Klint’s work is stunningly displayed here, and it is a terrible misfire that the Tate did not trust these works enough to gear an exhibition around them. Instead, they opted for what ultimately amounts to little more than a con.
It’s just about worth it, if only for one half of the show…
Hilma Af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is on at Tate Modern until 3rd September.