“I want my work to be a simple statement. To have an atmosphere and integrity… To have interesting space relationships, relationships of colour, and colour to form – that is form suggesting colour and vice versa”, Whilhelmina Barns-Graham, in ‘Cornish Magazine’, vol. 4, no. 10, February 1962
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s practise is typified by experimentation and the development of various styles and techniques, exploring both the abstract and the figurative. Though this was also true of many of her peers in the St Ives artistic community, it has made her difficult to classify at times. Her movement between the two approaches across her long career has been taken, by some, as a lack of commitment to either one. This summation is a little unfair, however, as her work often broke ground interrogating the dialogue between abstraction and figuration. Above all she was committed to the notion of remaining true to her artistic voice, in whichever form it led her to progress.
Though highly regarded for the clarity of her precise and considered line work and drawing, it was in fact when Barns-Graham worked within the realms of the abstract that she produced some of her most important and original work. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, her practise became increasingly abstracted, though she was still drawing from nature and utilising its underlying forms as her basis. This included exploring the potential of the Golden Section; the naturally occurring geometry found in everything from seashells to seed heads.
In the 1960s however, from which this work dates, we see can see the artist making deeper strides into the purely abstract. She had absorbed some of the influence of the American Abstract Expressionists which is apparent in her increased usage of gesture and the focus on the brushstroke as a form in itself. Her admiration of the work of Joan Miro, viewed on a trip to Spain and the Baleric Islands in 1958, also had a loosening effect on her work. A newly strident use of colour may have been a reflection of the personal turmoil she was experiencing around this period due to the breakdown of her marriage. It was in this year that she also temporarily moved away from St Ives, establishing a studio in London for a time.
To cope during this period of loss and upheaval in her life, Barns-Graham became absorbed in psychoanalytic, philosophical and spiritual theory, working throughout the 1960s on a series titled ‘Order and Disorder of Things of a Kind’. As in the work offered here, we see this manifesting in the exploration of how colours and forms interact and react in relation to one another; the compositions radically simple. This work reads like a study or experimental exercise, in which she tests the vibrations provoked by the juxtaposition of contrasting, often jarring, colours. The black form forces its way forward, seeming to emerge from the wispy stroke of white which our eyes travel over next, before the vivid synthetic pop of pink jostles the curvaceous chartreuse shape towards us, which in turn seems to tilt precariously off to the right of the frame.