Blog post by Francis Bell, international exchange partner student from Flinders University, Australia
I first had the opportunity to view two original works by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham while studying abroad at Stirling University at the beginning of Autumn 2023.
It was – of course – as I was rushing through the Pathfoot building to my seminar. It struck me: something had changed. We had entered a new academic year and a new University Art Collection exhibition had been launched. The Pathfoot crush hall – aptly named for its potential to collect milling students before classes – was awash with bright pops of colour. Our white walls were a new canvas for bold shapes, lines, emotion, and energy.
I was viewing a modern art exhibition – Inspired! – and I wanted to know more.
Two of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s works are featured in Inspired!: ‘Celebration at 90’, a 2002 screenprint, and ‘Untitled (White Flash)’, an acrylic on paper painted in 2003. I would later discover that these are some of Barns-Graham’s most joyful late-career pieces, and the dynamic movement which characterised Barns-Graham’s surfaces struck me clearly in both.
To better appreciate what I was seeing, however, I found myself led back to the beginning of Barns-Graham’s career. The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust provides a candid introduction to the artist written by Douglas Hall, former Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
I learned that Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (8 June 1912 – 26 January 2004) left a lasting influence and legacy in the world of modern art in Britain. Barns-Graham was intuitively creative as a child. After graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1937, she relocated to a studio in St Ives, Cornwall, where many artists had taken refuge during the Second World War. It was here that Barns-Graham’s early interest in precise drawing and the ordering of shapes and colour crystallised.
Throughout the 1950s, Barns-Graham realised her potential as a modern painter, initially starting with abstractions that Douglas Hall (2023) describes as ‘based firmly on perception’, and later moving to a ‘free and intensely personal use of the brush’. These were also years where Barns-Graham travelled widely, met other modern artists in Paris, and toured in Italy.
In the 1960s Barns-Graham began to split her time between her work in St Ives, and the family home she inherited in St Andrews, Scotland. This initiated a fresh direction in her work. Barns-Graham started employing hard-edged geometric and linear forms. She has been described by Douglas Hall (2023) as unique in her ability to make these serve the purpose of expression, keeping her forms perpetually in motion.
From 1988, the last phase of Barns-Graham’s work had begun. She produced triumphant and beautiful pieces with the skill and freedom of an experienced painter, using line, colour, shape, calligraphic brushwork, and a new medium – screen printing – to masterful effect.
In 2001, Barns-Graham’s pioneering contributions to British abstract art in the 20th century were acknowledged in a biography of the artist written by Lynne Green. In the same year Barns-Graham was made CBE.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham died on 26 January 2004, and by her Will, set up a charitable trust to provide aid for aspiring art students, which she herself had received in her youth.
As I ran through Inspired! that first time, the question ‘what comes to your mind when you think of red?’ posed by the exhibition lingered in my mind. Before the exhibition, perhaps I would have said ‘danger’. When I view Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s ‘Celebration at 90’, however – which makes me hide a smile and imagine the happiness of a birthday cake – I can’t help but think of red as cheerful, and even comforting. It’s something I look forward to pondering over the year of Inspired! ahead.
Our ‘Inspired!’ Exhibition is now open in Pathfoot Building and runs until July 2024. We are delighted and grateful to have three works from the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust on loan to us for the duration of the exhibition.