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During isolation, a reminder of the vibrancy of life

During isolation, a reminder of the vibrancy of life

In this very peculiar moment of forced isolation, art can be an anchor that keeps us afloat, comforting and soothing. It is for me, at least. I spend a great part of my day in front of my laptop’s screen and I have put Sunghrie III by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham as my background on the screen desktop. It is my favourite piece in our collection. 

The Gallery is relatively small and people don’t always realise that the collection consists of thousands of pieces and they are all fully accessible online…don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that looking at an artwork online it is not exactly the same as standing in front of the original, but at the moment it is the best option available. The Falmouth Art Gallery collection is famous for a few quite important pieces, like the The Lady of Shalott or a few of Henry Scott Tuke’s paintings, but personally I love the abstract works more. Sunghrie III is my favourite of them all**. It is an explosion of colours: vibrant, warm, sparkling…a dance of shapes and marks. Although it is a screenprint, you can feel the textures of the image even just looking at it. It always makes me feel a bit more joyful and it lifts my mood and spirit, but especially now, in this unsettling situation, it brings a smile to my face.

I find all Wilhelmina’s work alive and exciting. She wasn’t a Cornish artist, but she lived a big part of her life in Cornwall, moving to St Ives during the war. Of course, she met Dame Barbara Hepworth and all the artists of the St Ives School, but she always tried to keep a bit of distance and not being too influenced by their work. Although she couldn’t avoid it completely, she was always able to maintain a proper personal style. According to her, she knew from a very early age that she was going to be an artist, and despite her father’s attempts to discourage her, she managed to go to Art school and eventually become an artist. It is thrilling to see the evolution of her work: starting in a very figurative way with a gentle touch of naivety in her early pieces and gradually making her way through the simplification of forms. During the 1950s the shapes on her canvases are becoming increasingly geometric, with very defined lines that seem to echo Cubism, clearly showing the beginning of her path to abstraction and chromatic exploration. Apparently, a crucial experience for this transition was a trip to Switzerland and in particular a hike on a glacier. Wilhelmina was really impressed by the transparency and geometry of the layers of the ice. This experience and observation influenced all her work and can be seen in her obsession with compositions which are developed around her insight of layers, forms and the effects of transparency within colours. A constant attempt to simultaneously show the multitude of layers of an image.

Her pieces started to assume a more complex character in terms of composition. Moreover, some events in her personal life made her deeply reconsider the idea of relationships and connections. All that reflected on her new experimentations with complementary colours and contrasting shapes. She was exploring the ideas of order and disorder, looking for visual metaphors about life and things that happen without control, to express through forms and hues.

She had a very intense activity for the rest of her career and life, building up more complex narratives within the frames, until the very end. She died age 91. Her latest works are part of a series called Celebration: Sunghrie III is part of this series and you can see how the abstraction has taken over and how the pieces are a pure celebration of  joy, the importance of colours, forms and the vibrancy of life. Using her own words, she discovered that the “… brushstrokes can be happy and convey much more than just visual messages”. She explored synesthesia, with an amazing energy and vision that you would expect from a young artist, not necessarily from a 90 year old lady! She was bold, brave and flamboyant in her work. She realized how precious life is and she wanted to celebrate the beauty and the mystery of it.

This is what I want to share and what I wish to feel every time I look at that picture on my screen: I want to be reminded of the beauty, the energy, the passion and joy that move us all in life, even during the lockdown.

All references are thanks to the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust https://www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk/

Sara B.

Sunghrie III Barns-Graham, Wilhelmina (1912-2004): Sunghrie III, inscribed edition 19/75, screenprint on paper, 57.3 x 76.5 cms. Presented by Barns-Graham Charitable Trust. http://www.falmouthartgallery.com/Collection/2012.6.3