A Knitter’s Day Trip: af Klint and Mondrian at Tate Modern
Line and curve. Spiral and square. We knitters take string, form it into loops along sticks, and stack these loops into shapes to reflect our vision. Like letter, word, sentence, and verse. Like root, stem, leaf, and flower. And whether we are knitting a humble dishcloth or a Fair Isle sweater, we are the poets of string. How wonderful to explore the work of two artists who performed this same kind of magic with paint. There is everything to inspire us knitters at Tate Modern’s newest exhibition Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life.
Both artists were fascinated by the expressive possibilities of the horizontal and vertical planes of two dimensional canvases. This exhibit shows they were also inspired by ethereal dimensions. Both af Klint and Mondrian used line and color to explore spiritualism through paint and symbols.
Af Klint and Mondrian never met in life, but the curators at Tate saw something deeply parallel in their work. They were born ten years apart—she in Sweden, he in the Netherlands. Both trained as landscape painters, and each made detailed studies of flowers and plants—hers were of plants she observed on the little island of Munsö, his were of big blousy greenhouse glories. Her studies were Alice Starmore’s seaweed to his bold Kaffe Fassett coral peonies.
Pioneers of the abstract
Then like the zeitgeists they were, they both created some of the first abstract paintings ever made. Today, we may look at a huge Jackson Pollock canvas wildly spattered with house paint or a Helen Frankenthaler print layered with undulating shapes and say “Hey, check out those abstracts.” But in the early 20th century, this was radical stuff because it was the first time western artists were shedding themselves of the obligation to represent something from the visible world.
Many early abstract artists like af Klint and Mondrian, but also Wassily Kandinsky and Marsden Hartley, were looking within through meditation and contact with spiritual guides for messages about a world invisible to the eye. For these painters, spiritual messages took the form of pure line and pure color to form works that were completely revolutionary.
Not everyone liked the work. Most didn’t, for a while. Reviews were scathing as abstract work popped up in exhibitions all over Europe. In fact, af Klint realized her work was too strange and futuristic to be accepted by her contemporaries, so she instructed her nephew and heir to keep it under wraps until twenty years after her death. Now slowly, but surely she is becoming a rock star of the abstract art world—a status that Mondrian has long enjoyed.
Though there were plenty of people agog in the final bright room of classic Mondrians with their black and white grids punctuated by blocks of primary colors, the beating heart of the Tate exhibition was the huge room of af Klint’s Ten Largest—her abstract story of life from birth to death. These massive works became gathering points for visitors and no one seemed to want to part from them. I certainly felt they were like giant guardians in orange, pink, ochre, and dusty indigo blue who simply asked us to sit with them and contemplate.
In the mood boards!
Here are a few brain-teasing mood boards and photos for knitting inspiration from my post-exhibition knitting journal.
Olga Buraya-Kefelian’s Tendril Necklace—from Field Guide No. 24 appropriately titled “Spark”—paired with a detail from one of af Klint’s Ten Largest. Color, shape, and line in paint and yarn communicating over a space of 115 years:
Geometric wonder in black and white. I’d love to know who knitted Jean Cocteau’s gloves in the early 1900’s.
Did this knitter invent the pattern and what inspired them—was it a Mondrian painting? Had they been to the tiny Scottish town of Sanquhar?
Both af Klint and Mondrian were commissioned by scientists to make bacteriological drawings like the one I’ve paired (on the top left) with Philip Jacobs’ Brassica fabric for Kaffe Fassett Studios. On the bottom left is a detail from Mondrian’s landscape Dune III, 1909, (on the bottom left) paired with Kaffe Fassett’s legendary Roman Glass pattern.
One of af Klint’s 150 notebooks. Shall we make these blocks in intarsia or patchwork first?
This painting had me rifling through my yarn stash to put these color combinations together. Socks first? And then a striped sweater?
This spring our own Franklin Habit said intarsia was all the rage at h+h in Cologne, so I nominate this Mondrian painting for a sweater.
Be forewarned. This exhibition will even have you looking at public utility hatches and devising them into knitting patterns.
In the final af Klint gallery, I met a woman from Florida and her daughter who were on a tour of Europe to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation. They were both floored by the show which was a last-minute addition to their itinerary. Mom, who was visibly in awe, said next to the Bayeux tapestry, af Klint’s paintings were her favorite artworks she’d seen. The daughter was admiring one of af Klint’s Ten Largest paintings of a giant yellow flower form, and said, “They’re like messages from a place we don’t understand yet, but we want to.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And this brought me back to my love of knitting and all of the patterns and techniques and their codes which are messages I don’t understand, yet, but I want to. Oh, yes, I want to and, with the help of this knitting community, I will.