Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE (8 June 1912 – 26 January 2004) was one of the foremost British abstract artists, a member of the influential Penwith Society of Arts.
Through the course of her life Wilhelmina Barns-Graham's work generally lay on the divide between abstract and representational, typically drawing on inspirations from landscape. From as early as the age of eight Barns-Graham had been creating abstract shapes with coloured chalks. From 1940, when she arrived in Cornwall, her pictures are exploratory and even tentative as she began to develop her own method and visual language. The influence of St Ives then starts to arise, to take hold as local shapes and colours appear in the images - the Cornish rocks, landscape and buildings. Perhaps the most significant innovation at this time derived from the ideas of Naum Gabo, who was interested in the principle of stereometry - defining forms in terms of space rather than mass. Barns-Graham's series of glacier pictures that started in 1949, inspired by her walks on the Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland, reflect the idea of looking at things in a total view, not only from the outside but from all points, including inside. In 1952 her studies of local forms became more planar and two dimensional, but from the mid-1950s she had developed a more expressionist and free form attitude following journeys to Spain.
In the early 1960s, reflecting the turmoil in her personal life, Barns-Graham adopted a severe geometrical form of abstraction as a way of taking a fresh approach to her painting. Combined with a very intuitive sense of colour and design, the work often has more vitality than is immediately apparent. Squares tumble and circles flow across voids. Colour and movement come together and it is at this point in her work that St Ives perhaps exerts the least influence; rather, this approach more likely reflects an interest in the work of Josef Albers who was exciting UK artists at this time, in embracing new possibilities offered by the optical effects of a more formulaic abstraction.
Nonetheless there is evidence to suggest that many images did stem from observations of the world around her. This is seen in a series of ice paintings in the late 1970s and then in a body of work that explores the hidden energies of sea and wind, composed of multiple wave-like lines drawn in the manner of Paul Klee. The Expanding Form paintings of 1980 are the culmination of many ideas from the previous fifteen years - the poetic movement in these works revealing a more relaxed view.
From the late 1980s until her death, Barns-Graham's paintings became more and more free; an expression of life and free flowing brushwork not seen since the late 1950s. Working mainly on paper (there are relatively few canvases from this period) the images evolved to become, initially, highly complex, rich in colour and energy, and then, simultaneously, bolder and simpler, reflecting her enjoyment of life and living. "In my paintings I want to express the joy and importance of colour, texture, energy and vibrancy, with an awareness of space and construction. A celebration of life – taking risks so creating the unexpected." (Barns-Graham, October 2001) This outlook is perfectly expressed in the extraordinary collection of screen prints that she made with the Graal Press of Edinburgh, between 1999 and 2003.