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Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian exhibition reviews: What the critics say

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Tate Modern’s new exhibition places Hilma af Klint artworks alongside those of Piet Mondrian. It’s the first time these two painters have been in close dialogue in a major exhibition.


This landmark show — which was first shown in Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands — now lands in London with the title Forms of Life.


But why are Swedish painter Hilma af Klint and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian put together, when the show admits that they never met? Well, Tate thinks they are two of the most imaginative artists of the twentieth century. For the gallery, it offers a chance to reveal how the two artist’s work reflected radical new ideas, theories and scientific discoveries in an era of rapid social change.


Because “they shared the same deep connection” they deserve a show of equal billing where they can be seen side-by-side, goes the logic.


But do the art critics agree — and should you buy a ticket to visit?


Well firstly, there is a lot to see. There are around 250 works on show, including paintings, drawings and archival materials. And it’s the largest presentation of Hilma af Klint’s work in the UK to date. So you get a lot for your £20 ticket.


But for the critics, their reviews have been mixed.


Forms of Life at Tate Modern reviews


For Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times, Forms of Life is “cleverly paced and generously selected.” It “grows ever more engrossing” he says.


Januszczak is particularly taken with the work of af Klint, with special praise for her 1915 paintings called The Swan. He says that these include “thrilling quadrants of colour” that mark her as “the most radical such artist at work at the time.”

Painting of a shell in the centre of a square canvas with multi-coloured sectioned background
Hilma af Klint, The Swan, The SUW/UW Series, Group IX: Part 1, No. 19, 1914 - 1915. Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation

It’s not all praise though. He thinks the exhibition does contain a fair amount of “preposterous gobbledygook” due the supposed link between the two artists: a belief in the supernatural.


Alastair Sooke had similar thoughts. In the Daily Telegraph, his four-star review says that Forms of Life “draws fascinating parallels between one modernist you probably know, and one you almost certainly don't.”


While neither knew of the other, “ingeniously and rivetingly, the show establishes correspondences between them” he says.


But, like Waldemar in the Sunday Times, he does advise not to “get bogged down in the crazy supernaturalism.”


Of af Klimt he says, “all the mumbo-jumbo about séances and spiritual guides called Amaliel matters less than the paintings’ forms.


On the other hand, the i’s critic enjoyed the fact that the exhibition was allowing “space for Mondrian’s spirituality.” Hettie Judah says that Tate Modern has become the “unlikely home to cosmic vibrations, spirit guides, the inner lives of plants and other esoteric phenomena.


A man in a white jumper looks at a canvas painting Mondrian on the wall featuring monochrome pattern
Hilma Af Klint and Piet Mondrian Installation View at Tate Modern 2023. Photo Tate (Lucy Green)

But Judah’s criticism is focused on Tate Modern’s approach. She laments that the gallery has taken the playfulness away.


“So much about this show is fascinating” she writes, “but boy does the Tate have a knack for knocking the fun out of things sometimes.” She is disappointed that a show powered by the wonders of an unseen and spiritual world "often feels dour.”


Jonathan Jones at the Guardian wasn’t much of a fan full-stop. Only awarding the show two-stars, he thinks neither of the two artists come out of it well. “It’s a cruel way of showing Af Klint and a highly eccentric view of Mondrian.


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Jones is also not convinced they are equals that deserve top billing. “In a room dedicated to their flower studies, Af Klint’s are dry, pedantic drawings. His are captivating reveries” he says.


Perhaps the review’s headline sums his thoughts up best: the “Swedish mystic is no match for the great modernist.”


So, the critics have divided feelings. How apt for a show split between two artists. But if you want to make your own mind up, then Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is at Tate Modern in London until 3 September 2023.


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