As a founding member of the St Ives group, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham RSA RSW CBE is acclaimed as a foremost British Modernist. Her images derive from acute observations of natural forms and the places she visited, pared to the bare essentials. Bohun Gallery's major show focusses on her strong bond with the sea and coastlines. Barns-Graham split her time between her studio in St Ives and a family home in St Andrew's, Fife. The beaches, north and south, look out over very different seas (eastwards to the North Sea and westwards to the North Atlantic respectively) and have their own characteristics; their colour, shapes, nuances and movements. These stark environments provided the artist with limitless inspiration and, as this carefully curated show illustrates, formed a catalyst for one of the most distinguished artists of the late 20th Century.
The last decade of the artist's life is the most celebrated with its bold brushstrokes creating forms over coloured surfaces. While these are well represented in Bohun Gallery's extensive show, the exhibition also seeks to explore her earlier work - paintings and drawings that describe natural phenomena which were not often seen outside of the studio. They describe the curve, swell, surge, arabesque and linear parallels seen in sea currents and waves, wind and land. They arise from long years of daily observation of the sea and shore along Fife and Cornish coasts. The group of paintings Movement over Sand are deeper abstractions of these observations. The series Summer Painting created still lifes of the multitude of colours and patterns of beach towels, wind screens, deck chairs, kites, beach balls that were spread along the beach outside of her St Ives studio. There were the glorious Atlantic sunsets observed from her sitting room; the rock pools; the fishing boats heading out to sea.
In her last decade, Barns-Graham's paintings were discovered by new audiences. Her late paintings are filled with colour and energy, and contain a joie de vivre that one instantly connects with. The sea and coast contribute greatly to this work though often only identified via the picture titles. Unlike her work from before 1990 the images are less directly descriptive of the actual, and more illustrative of her emotional responses, distilled through the act of her painting. The late flourish extended into making screenprints, a practice that she found particularly exciting in her last years, for its flexibility and creative opportunities. The Eight Lines and Six Lines etchings, inspired by her observations on walking along St Andrews' East Sands, revisit her earlier line drawings and so bring us, and her, full circle within the exhibition.
The innovative work of the 1980s was made against a backdrop of increased critical and public interest in the artistic phenomena of St Ives. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and her colleagues found themselves the focus of a reappraisal with the Tate Gallery's major survey exhibition in 1985. This was followed by the Retrospective exhibition (1989), W Barns-Graham at 80 (1992-93), and W Barns-Graham: Painting as Celebration (2002-4), all of which toured to Museums around the UK. In 1999 Tate St Ives presented a major survey exhibition, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: An Enduring Image, and in 2005, Tate published a new catalogue with an essay by Mel Gooding to accompany their exhibition of selected highlights from Barns-Graham's career, Movement and Light Imag(in)ing Time. Her Centenary year began in London with the Fleming Collection's significant survey exhibition: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham; a Scottish artist in St Ives. In 1999 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and the Royal Scottish Watercolourists (RSW); and in 2001 she was awarded CBE.
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