Studio International

Published 22/04/2014

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: In Perspective – The Late Works

Art First, London
26 March – 17 May, 2014

by JANET McKENZIE

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) was a key figure in the abstract movement in Britain yet it was only towards the end of her long and productive life that she received the critical attention she deserved.

She lived in St Ives, Cornwall, for more than 60 years as part of the artists’ group that included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Alfred Wallis. She remained while the next group of artists settled there: Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost. She also maintained close ties with Scotland, where she had been born and educated, and following the death of an aunt, inherited Balmungo House near St Andrews. She continued to move between Cornwall and Scotland, working right up to her death at the age of 91. The last decade of her work, in spite of physical frailty, was a passionate outpouring and saw the production of possibly her finest work, the subject of the exhibition at Art First in London, which is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.

Since her death, Barns-Graham’s work has enjoyed significant attention, including in the auction rooms, the centenary of her birth marked by a series of exhibitions in London and Scotland. In 1999, and posthumously in 2005, the Tate presented two extremely important exhibitions: An Enduring Image and Movement and Light Imag(in)ing Time, respectively. For her centenary year, the Fleming Collection and Edinburgh’s City Art Centre staged, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Scottish artist in St Ives, enabling the compass of her work to be fully appreciated.

Looking at the work on show at Art First (which has represented Barns-Graham since 1994), it is hard to believe that a body of work marked as it was by experimentation, a sense of joyful freedom and youthful vitality has taken so long to be widely recognised. In his foreword to the second edition of Lynn Green’s monograph, W Barns-Graham: a studio life (2000, 2011), the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, who knew her well, identifies harmony and an identifiable mathematical order in her work: “order and disorder, regularity and irregularity, singularity and plurality, simplicity and multiplicity, edgy contour and fluid colour, the wonder of viscous substances, thick and thin, congealed and runny, patterns of process that transcend object, scale and material, and, above all, the interdependence of motion and emotion”. The harmonic opposites that are constantly embedded in image give the work of Barns-Graham a remarkable energy and immensely satisfying balance.

At the age of 89, Barns-Graham said in an interview with the art critic John McEwen: “Now I am at the stage of urgency. My theme is celebration of life, joy, the importance of colour, form, space and texture. Brushstrokes that can be happy, risky, thin, fat, fluid and textured. Having a positive mind and constantly being aware and hopefully being allowed to live longer to increase this celebration.”

Her early work was very much the product of her training at the Edinburgh College of Art, from which she graduated in 1937. She moved to Cornwall in 1940. Her drawings and paintings made in response to a trip to the Grindelwald glacier in Switzerland in 1949 established her reputation as one of the most important artists in St Ives. She worked in themes throughout her life, some of which lasted for years: abstracted glaciers, rock forms, line motifs, abstract reliefs, squares and circles and painted constructions.

The last 10 years of her life saw an increase in productivity, due in part to the working relationship with printmaker Carol Robertson, whose skill enabled the production of a superb body of screen prints, many of which were exhibited at the Fraser Gallery in St Andrews last year. They are an outstanding manifestation and extension of Barns-Graham’s painterly sensibility underpinned by an elegant formal structure. It was following an interview with a journalist, which Barns-Graham felt was a failure, that she used a flailing brush, and “punished” a sheet of heavy paper. Slashing the surface in anger created a highly expressive patina on to which paint was applied. It is one component of the energetic works created by a frail artist in her late 80s. The Scorpio series date from the late 90s and combine calm and spirited movement, complex compositions with bold simplicity, and subtly with certainty.

The drawings made on travels to Lanzarote in 1989 are key to the work processes of Barns-Graham, who had by then established a remarkable and varied group of friends and proper recognition as an artist. Volcanic Island (near Montana del Fuego II) Lanzarote (1989) employs white crayon and acrylic on paper. The drawn line combines the ability to describe, to wander, to impose order and to establish the formal structure for many subsequent works. La Geria (Study of Volcanic Rock) Lanzarote (1990) employs chalk and pastel on black paper. Here she creates a frenzied layering of forms over and over on the surface, which also resemble massive waves at sea, a metaphor for the spiritual aspect of her life. It is at once a forceful and delicate work, one that indicates the depth of her nature and the professionalism and determination of her practice. The drawings enabled Barns-Graham an ownership of the picture plane, with a particularly alluring command of surface tension and touch.

The paintings of the last decade of her life were fuelled by discipline and freedom, passion and the cool precision of her drawing skills. She balanced the thrilling Barcelona series, with apparent homage to Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies, with the joyful images in gouache of hard-won personal contentment in The Garden (Balmungo) 1990.  In 1996, aged 83, she said: “At my age, there’s now no time to be lost. I say to myself: ‘Do it now, say it now, don’t be afraid.’ I’ve got today, but who knows about tomorrow? I’m not ready for death yet, there’s still so much I want to do. Life is so exciting; nature is so exciting. Trying to catch the one simple statement about it. That’s what I’m aiming for, I’ll keep on trying.”1

Reference
1. Quoted by Lynne Green in W Barns-Graham: a studio life, second edition, published by Lund Humphries, 2011, page 273.