March 25, 2014 5:48 pm

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Art First, London – review

This marvellous show confirms that the Scottish painter produced her best work in her final decade
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Travel, Memory, 2001

‘Travel Memory’ (2001)

Partly because so many artists are living so long, late work is currently very fashionable. It is also uneven and controversial: not every great artist ages into a great late artist – David Hockney and Willem de Kooning are among those whose output in their latter years remains disputed. As this marvellous show, subtitled In Perspective: The Late Works, records, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, though a more modest figure, really is a painter who produced her best work in the decade before her death, aged 91, in 2004. “Now I am at a stage of urgency,” she said in 2001. “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.”

From the mid-20th century, Barns-Graham was a distinguished if not innovative abstract painter. Born and trained in Scotland, she moved to St Ives in 1940 and absorbed the modernist rigour of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Her mid-career work, when she was lonely and professionally neglected, is a push-pull between a slightly precious geometric abstraction and a freer style and flair for colour. In old age, when she had returned to work in Scotland, painterly expressiveness won. The large-scale “Easter Series, Two Brushstrokes” (2000), the highlight here, is a stunner: two huge, sweeping marks, dark blue and white, slashing upwards through a turquoise ground with the inevitability of waves beating the shore, furious, crashing, then ebbing into something gentler, resolved.

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Smaller works on paper, where Barns-Graham softly brushes forms over coloured surfaces, are similarly simple yet masterly. In the lovely “Scorpio” series, her familiar rectangular shapes become fuzzier elongated oblongs, then dynamic single brushstrokes. Bold chromatic harmonies and contrasts throughout – vermilion on brown on lemon in “Travel Memory”, primary colours laid over mottled pink/black/cream grounds in “Inside Outside” – declare Barns-Graham, long pigeonholed by the St Ives label, a glorious late Scottish colourist.

To May 17, artfirst.co.uk

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