Theosophical Alchemy: Hilma Af Klint And Piet Mondrian

Theosophical Alchemy: Hilma Af Klint And Piet Mondrian
Although artists Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian did not know of each-other, they were both members of the Theosophical Society, and their work integrates shared themes and motifs; Tate Modern unite these through a joint exhibition in ‘The Ether’.


Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) began their careers as academically trained landscape painters, before developing radically different models of painting in the 20th century. During their careers, new technologies such as the microscope, radiography and photography were challenging existing models of perspective. This catalysed shifts across science, spirituality and the arts.

Rather than seeing their work as a rejection of natural appearances, their processes can be seen as a way of thinking through nature. In their own ways, each artist created an abstract language expressing the interconnectedness they felt between all forms of life. Seen from today’s perspective of environmental and planetary crisis, their close attention to these relationships is even more relevant.


Landscaping Solutions

In 1882, af Klint joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Women had only just begun to be accepted at the academy, and often still faced barriers to progression. While studying, she became well known for her landscape and portrait paintings, establishing herself as a respected artist. She would continue to produce paintings in this tradition even as she developed into abstraction.

Mondrian studied at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam from 1892; and was associated with the ‘Hague School’ of realist painters during a period of renewed energy and experimentation in Dutch painting. Their work was characterised by muted colours, loose brushwork and textured surfaces.


Evolutionary Theories

In their Evolution works, both artists explored the relationships between spiritual and artistic evolution, integrating symbolism with distinctive motifs, patterns and forms.

Domburg, on the island of Walcheren in the Dutch province of Zeeland, became an artists’ community known for its landscapes and quality of light. Mondrian spent every summer there until 1914, marking an important phase in his quest to find his own visual language of colour, style and technique.

Domburg’s towers, dunes and seascapes provided the inspiration for the horizontal and vertical principles which were to become characteristic of his work. His Evolution triptych is said to represent emotional change, and progress from the material towards the spiritual realms using symbolism from Theosophy, an esoteric movement that interested both artists.

Af Klint’s work on spiritual evolution also represents movement between altered-states of consciousness. In the colourful symbolism that recurs throughout her pieces, the spiral shape of the snail represents this cyclical ascent. She experimented with several visual languages within a single work, combining symbolism, organic forms and abstraction. The titles for her pieces were based on a system she was developing, with numbers corresponding to certain geometric shapes, and relating to different aspects of the world and inner landscape.

Af Klint referred to The Paintings for The Temple as her ‘greatest commission’; featuring the Seven-Pointed Star Series, Group VIand The Evolution. Between 1906 and 1915 she created works that she believed to be directed or commissioned by a spiritual guide named Amaliel. This was one of five guides or ‘Higher Masters‘ thought to exist on another mental plane. The Five (‘De Fem’ in Swedish), communicated with af Klint and her spiritual collective, resulting in 193 works in several series.


Natural Metamorphosis

Both artists closely observed nature and its biodiversity. From the late 1890s Mondrian was mostly drawing, painting and exhibiting single flowers, tracing their natural blooming and wilting over time. Af Klint more commonly depicted a plant at two stages of its life, in spring and in summer – her own meditation on the circle of life. The ‘unfinished’ state of drawings by both artists resonates with the transience of their subject matter.

Mondrian’s preference for painting cultivated flowers, like lilies and chrysanthemums, contrasts with Klint’s interest in plants native to Nordic countries, such as cornflower and sea thrift. Her choice of watercolour on paper, as well as the arrangements on the sheet, show her familiarity with the conventions of botanical drawing. In the 19th century, botanical illustration was one of the few professional artistic activities open to women, and many of them became skilled in this area.

Both artists moved beyond their realistic representations of flowers, and while Klint continued to engage with their deeper spiritual meanings, Mondrian expressed exploring their ‘plastic structure’. Their early immersion in the language of plants and the vegetal matrix offered them a means to articulate the correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm. This is the idea that the structure of the cosmos is mirrored in the smallest living entity – a popular concept across theosophy, paganism and self-similarity in fractal universe theories.


Axis Mundi

The tree was another shared focal point between Klint and Mondrian. Klint spent two years working on The Tree of Knowledge from 1913, while Mondrian painted his series of trees between 1908 and 1911.

Af Klint’s series draws on a concept common to many mythological and religious traditions. The ‘Axis Mundi’, often described as ‘the world tree’, is a form that connects every part of the universe from micro to macro. In Norse mythology, the Yaggdrasil is an ash tree at the centre of the cosmos, reaching to the heavens with roots extended deep below the earth. Klint combined the precision of her botanical illustrations and scientific diagrams, with ornamentation inspired by art nouveau – a decorative movement that used fluid, sinuous lines based on vegetal forms.

After travelling to Paris in 1911 and encountering cubism, Mondrian began reworking his drawings and paintings of trees. Cubism was a radically new approach to breaking up objects and figures into distinct planes, emphasising the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. In The Red Tree Mondrian painted a tree not as an element of the material world but as a ‘plastic expression’ – the energetic brushwork of the branches appears to celebrate the process of painting itself. In his later trees, the trunk and branches are condensed into a network of verticals and horizontals, as Mondrian focused on distilling the image into its essential forms.

In many cultures and thought systems, trees are connected to mystical forces beyond the visible world. Focusing on the structure of the tree enabled artists to explore these intangible currents of life in their own ways.


Colourfully Dynamic

Mondrian and Klint expressed the ‘universal’ in distinct ways, while both experimenting with dynamic relationships between form and colour.

During summers spent in Domburg, Mondrian gradually refined his depictions of towers and sea views until they dissolved into complete abstraction. He represented a spiritual ‘male’ principle with verticals, and a material ‘female’ principle with horizontals. From 1914 his work consisted of verticals and horizontals that did not intersect. His ultimate goal was to ‘plastically express’ a universal harmony based on the balance of opposing forces.

Af Klint painted The Eros Series in 1907. She used light, pastel colours and elegant lines accompanied by letters and text. Linear diagonals evolved into dynamic forms reminiscent of flowers, leaves and ovals. Similarly, all the elements in the series appear to be designed to balance opposing ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ forces – using contrasting colours such as blue and yellow, the letters AO (Alpha and Omega), and the Swedish words Asket (ascetic) and Vestal.

In her notebooks, Klint often used these names interchangeably in reference to herself and her collaborator Anna Cassel – referencing a fluidity of gender and a unity of masculine and feminine principles. The title of the series is believed to be inspired by Eros, the god of love in Greek Mythology. In the Roman poet Ovid’s text ‘Metamorphoses’, we encounter Eros in the tale of Cupid and Psyche, overcoming obstacles to eventually achieve the ultimate union in a sacred marriage.


Spiritual Union

In 1920, Klint created Series IIa group of works on different religions. In a reduced abstract language of segmented circles, she visualised different religions at particular points in their development. Circles and crosses orbit, collide with, and bisect larger geometries. Series II can be seen as part of Klint’s ongoing project to work out the relationships between external forms and their underlying processes.

The Theosophical Society was an extensive transnational network that made the translation and dissemination of texts a key part of their expansion. Their publishing technologies were often based on new channels of communication that were used to support Britain’s Imperial activities in India. In keeping with the Theosophical principle that all religions are connected by a core spiritual truth, affiliated periodicals such as The Theosophist, The Path, The Lamp and Lucifer regularly published articles on world religions.

The ideas moving through these networks proved compelling to many artists and writers who encountered them. In 1904, af Klint joined the Stockholm lodge of the Theosophical Society – named Adyar, after the place where it was headquartered. Mondrian joined the Theosophical society in Amsterdam in 1909.

In his sketchbooks from 1912-14, Mondrian wrote ‘all religions have the same fundamental content; they differ only in form. The form is the external manifestation of this underlying content, and is thus an indispensable vehicle for the expression of many primary principles’. This resonates with af Klint’s own exploration of this series.


Sacred Geometry

The Swan series by af Klint dates from 1914, while she was living in Stockholm and much of the world was consumed by the First World War. By this time, she claimed no longer to be directed by her spiritual guides. Across the series, there is a shift between figurative imagery and abstract forms. Two swans engaged in conflict, rendered in opposing binary colours, also demonstrate balance and order, before metamorphosing into a series of interlinked cubes. The series marked a development in af Klint’s visual language from organic tendrils, spirals and symbolic forms towards increasingly geometric shapes and planes of solid colour.

Af Klint would have encountered the notion of an intangible fourth dimension in space through Theosophy and the work of member and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Her depiction of dematerialised forms such as transparent cubes point towards her familiarity with these theories. Such ideas largely disappeared after Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was popularised, transforming collective perspectives and understandings of space and time.

The swan was a popular occult symbol of unity, discussed extensively by leading Theosophist Helena Blavatsky in her book The Secret Doctrine, which influenced af Klint. The visual arc towards an eventual state of reconciliation in The Swan might have been her response to the political and social upheaval: ‘where war has torn up plants and killed animals, there are empty spaces left to be filled with new figures – if there is sufficient faith in human imagination and the capacity to develop higher forms’. Klint continued to use geometry in her pursuit for ‘primordial images’ and to convey her philosophical message of unity in Series III and Series V. 


Rhythmic Spaces

From 1914, Mondrian sought to bring space to life through the experience of painting itself. His neo-plastic paintings use combinations of horizontal and vertical lines, primary colours and grey, and binary white and black.

Around 1920 Mondrian developed his theory of neo-plasticism – a visual language of ‘pure relationships’. He abandoned any form of symbolism and his paintings became irregular grids often described as ‘jazz rhythms’. Before this, he had discovered the spatial impact of lozenge shapes, which also appear in later works such as Picture No. III: Lozenge Composition with Eight Lines and Red, featuring double and triple lines. He referred to ‘dynamic equilibrium’ to explain how a composition is produced through spatial relationships of lines and colour planes.

Neo-plasticism was intended to function as a pictorial language by reducing a painting to its basic principles. He removed individual aspects which he called ‘tragic’ in order to express the ‘universal’. As a result, his work is often regarded as detached from life, but this oversimplifies the complex relationships his paintings have to the world. To Mondrian, ‘the deepest essence of art’ has always remained the same – to make ‘the beauty of life’ visual, tangible and perceptible.

After reading the script for the play L’éphémère est éternal (The Ephemeral is Eternal), Mondrian created a model of a stage set comprising three interchangeable screens. The play does not have a consistent plot: the actors lose themselves in an experiment where anything can happen. The ‘ephemeral’ – from fashion to jazz – represented the gateway to the eternal. Mondrian’s set design can be seen as an expression of the universal that forms the backdrop to the ephemeral.


Close Confluences

Klint’s series Parsifal is believed to be titled after the opera by Richard Wagner, but it may also refer to the Arthurian legend in which Parsifal, one of the Knights of the Round Table, takes part in the quest for the Holy Grail.

The subtitles of the individual works include ‘Ether’ and ‘Astral’ – terms used by the Theosophical Society in their books Thought Forms and Occult Chemistry. They refer to intangible natural forces that can be accessed through altered-states of consciousness. Such works allowed Klint to experiment beyond the limits of her artistic training.

Parsifal was created in 1916 in Klint’s studio on the island of Münso, Sweden. She had become less interested in the city, despite its growing international art scene. She imagined building a residential and research community closer to home, where she and friends could spend time exploring the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms.

Composition with Yellow Lines exemplifies Mondrian’s later neo-plastic processes. The relationship between the horizontal and vertical lines evoke a grid that expands beyond our field of vision, suggesting an all-encompassing environment. Rose in a Glass is painted on a brilliant yellow background with delicate rhythms of petals delineated by a soft, radiating line. While Mondrian was ambivalent towards his flower works and scholars have suggested they were largely a commercial venture, he continued to produce them late into his career, even without commission.


Nature’s Temple

Heavily influenced by Theosophical principles and its relationship to other disciplines, Hilma af Klint believed her works to be representative of the journey of the soul. The Ten Largest are part of The Paintings for The Temple – a body of works she believed to be directed by psychological forces, her ‘spiritual guides’.

Her works are a reflection of her personal development from childhood to old age, and in this sense, represent the stages of life. She animated this cycle using organic motifs and abstract geometries, tying them into the patterns and processes of the natural world. The logarithmic spiral of the snail is a form deeply connected with processes of growth and evolution. Botanical forms morph into abstract ones as the imagery veers from microscopic to cosmic.

Af Klint had dreams of building a temple in the form of a spiral, where these paintings could be displayed. To ascend through the temple meant to move into different states of consciousness at various stages of life. Despite their large scale, she produced the works in just a few months, completely overturning contemporary conventions of art-making in the process with her bold use of scale, colour and form.

Af Klint and Mondrian studied nature closely in their formative years – eventually using these foundations to make nature’s intangible interconnected processes visible in their works. Both believed natural laws demonstrated the relationship between nature and nurture, and they leveraged the principles that underpinned the natural environment as well as architectural design.

Neo-plasticism was a visual model for an equitable and harmonious bond, and both artists expressed beliefs that their works had greater relevance for future generations to come. Af Klint went as far as stipulating that many of her works should not be shown for 20 years following her death. In their own ways, they demonstrated the union between art and life. Art became their outlet for reflecting on universal patterns, as a means of expressing the false dichotomy between subject and object, and for illustrating processes of change.


Ethereal Planes

‘The Ether’ refers to the 19th century belief in an invisible connection between all visible forms. A collective imagination, mind or consciousness that has its roots in many ancient philosophies. This is a place where discoveries, beliefs and creativity converge.

The works of both artists reflect the cultural context and creative circles that surrounded and influenced them throughout their lives, as they moved from landscapes into deeper ecology. Popular conceptions of the world were shifting as significant discoveries and developments in various fields captured public imagination. Artists experimented with expressing the spiritual and scientific inclinations of the day through their series connecting the natural world with inner lives and unseen dimensions.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the religious belief in the world’s creation by a single God had been destabilised by Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, set out in On The Origin of The Species (1859). As an eclectic spiritualist movement, Theosophy absorbed evolution into its ideology. These movements, often enigmatic, were seen by some to be at the cutting edge of modernity. But they were also a means of individual and collective discovery, and in Composition with Grid 9 Mondrian referred to the ‘deconstruction of the natural and a reconstruction according to the spirit’.


Invisible Worlds

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries several technological developments changed the way we see the world. X-rays were discovered in 1895, making solid matter appear transparent and revealing previously unseen forms. This raised new questions about the existence of planes imperceptible to the naked eye.

The development of wireless telegraphy in the late 1890s, based on the discovery of electromagnetic waves in 1888, suggested empty space filled with vibrating waves. In the early 20th century this mysterious, invisible substance termed the ‘ether of space’ was discussed in popular literature and occult journals alike. New routes through the doors of perception and reformulations of the relationship between mind and matter, provided rich material for many industries across the board.

Af Klint and Mondrian demonstrate areas where these technological changes meet ecological forces. Botanists such as Carl Linnaeus developed a system of classification which encompassed plants, humans, animals and minerals. The organic curves and sinuous lines of the art nouveau movement were heavily influenced by such works, with these representations of growth and flux equally reflecting our understanding of life and art as a shapeshifting organism.