The second half of the twentieth century was rich in brilliantly creative women painters and sculptors. Tate Modern alone has recently showcased two of the finest in Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keefe.
In the poem below, and in writing this post, I am hoping to promote a British artist who has gained considerable recognition, but who has yet to achieve the level of acknowledgement she deserves.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (great name) was born in Fife in 1912, and she died there in 2004. She was associated with the Newlyn and St Ives groups of artists in Cornwall.
I’m not going to write any other words about her work, except to say that she devoted a substantial part of her career to painting and drawing glaciers.
As usual, digitised photos of paintings are no substitute for the power and beauty of the real thing, but here are two of her images, sandwiching my poem.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Discloses the Glacier
As a bird flies, a total experience –
all angles at once
through and all around:
this transparency reveals hidden energy
in each curving, turning, intersecting line.
She meditates on natural sculpture,
into abstract planes:
crafts cracks and pressures’ dynamics
into splintered translucencies.
Light is reflected in fracture –
is frozen –
making evanescent geometry
of the slides and sparkles,
the fragmented mass
and the tracery of prismatic friction.
She wheels and glides, spying turquoise and pink
in each crystal-snubbed glacier snout.
Glacier Surface, 1984
Barns-Graham painted many other subjects and her work moved towards an intense minimalism. The glacier images form a fascinating core.
We associate the word ‘glacier’ with evidence of climate change. Whether we deal with global warming successfully or not, the glaciers will be back.
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard” is a line from WH Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’.