With spring in our steps, there are two very interesting shows in London where the artists take their inspiration from nature. Firstly there is the much written about show at the Serpentine of Swedish artist Hilma af Klimt. Amazingly, af Klint painted abstract works around the same time of contemporaries like Kandinsky and Mondrian, yet has only recently come to the attention of a broader public.
There are various explanations for this. When she died in 1944, af Klint made it a stipulation in her will that her work could not be exhibited for 20 years after her death. The reason was that she feared that she would be misunderstood, but this request could also be seen against the backdrop of Hitler’s condemnation of so called ‘degenerate art’: art that was too bold and avant-garde for the National Socialists’ regressive taste and therefore had to be confiscated. Another reason may have been that women artists simply were at a disadvantage in the male-oriented creation of the canon of Western art – a topic that is very current and has led to a string of ‘corrective’ exhibitions by Tate featuring lesser known female artists.
But there may be a third, more simple reason for af Klint’s obscurity. She was part of a very secretive group of five female artists, who called themselves Fem (‘The Five’) and who derived their inspiration from a mystical contact with nature as a higher being, through séances where they encountered what they believed to be spirits, guiding their art. The Serpentine’s show is centered around a group of paintings called The Paintings for the Temple, a ‘commission’ for the group from an entity named Amaliel. These works are mesmerizing to look at, to lose yourself in, and the drive and passion behind them is admirable. Geometric forms in a beautiful colour palette are juxtaposed with representational iconography, such as ‘man and woman’, ‘sun and moon’ and symbols in the form of letters and animals.
Af Klint very cleverly combined the theory of Evolution with the ‘religion’ of nature, replacing more traditional religious beliefs with an all-encompassing, universal truth. These are striking works, especially given that they were mostly made between 1905 and 1915, a time when nature more often appeared as a pastoral landscape for an impressionist tableau of earthy, everyday pleasures. There is something of Caspar David Friedrich in af Klint’s submission to nature as a force stronger than us, but his romantic notions are replaced by a more rational, scientific approach. Nature as an organised religion; the occult as the higher truth.
But in this reverent approach also lie the artworks’ shortcomings. It almost seems as if you are tumbling upon a very private and intimate sect, without the context of the turbulent times in which these works were made. No reference to modernity, to the changing world, to grander ideals to discover and share a vision about the universe. When you compare this art with the work of an artist such as Mondrian, who also tried to render the laws of nature in metaphysical, geometric ‘truths’, what is missing in af Klint’s work is an openness, and an engagement with the world and the time in which the artist operated.
A very different show relating to nature in an abstract sense is an exhibition of the American artist Spencer Finch at Lisson Gallery. Lisson Gallery’s space is wonderful and serene, and lends itself very well to this show of new works. Where in af Klint’s show the title Painting the Unseen refers to a hidden force in nature, Finch’s show The Opposite of Blindness deals with the other side: the palpable and sensory aspect of nature. What is it like to perceive what goes on around us, and can this be translated into art? We are immediately drawn to the back room, to Finch’s installation Mars (Sunrise) 2016. Taking up the entire wall of the gallery, coloured fluorescent filters form what look like rays of sunshine, emanating a soft pink glow. Finch tries to render what it must feel like to watch the sunrise on Mars, inspired by research into a past space mission. Finch’s work thus deals with the complexities of the natural world, and man’s inability to fully comprehend it. Although the installation at the Lisson Gallery is entirely fictional, it also deals with our struggles to come to terms with the universe, and our attempts to make it into human-sized portions of knowledge and perception.
Finch is best known for his artwork Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning (2014), the only artwork commissioned for the September 11 Memorial Museum. It is a vast, yet delicate installation consisting of exactly 2,983 individual squares of paper – one for each life lost – which Finch hand-painted blue to approximate and remember the colour blue of the sky on that September morning. A powerful work: not just a visual shrine, but also offering a deeper understanding of the world, and of the continuity of nature and something bigger than ourselves, even in times of the most excruciating pain.
A lighter work in the next room at Lisson Gallery is called Meadow #2 (following a bee) 2016, in which Finch has attempted to track and map the paths taken by a bee in the delivery and exchange of pollen. Featherlight dots of colour are scattered around a white canvas, connected by a very thin line drawn in pencil. The work is humorous and light, but at the same time it makes you wonder at nature, and at all of the different and unnoticed complexities that happen around us at any given moment. Simultaneously abstract and representational, it is nature’s perfect metaphor.
So maybe it is this what makes me prefer Finch’s show over af Klint’s: his recognition of our vulnerability as humans, and his surrender to nature around us. He has come to see it as his role as an artist to try and help our perception, in visualizing the complexities of nature. But af Klint, in trying to capture nature and reduce it to a rational iconography, indeliberately achieves the opposite: she also gives up on nature’s mystery, its power, and our failure as humans to fully capture it. Ironically, in trying too hard to render nature’s higher truth, af Klint’s work has the danger of turning into an escape, instead of dealing head-on with what it means to be human in nature.
Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen, Serpentine Gallery, until 15th May
Spencer Finch, The Opposite of Blindness, Lisson Gallery, until 7th May