Cousins discovers a kindred spirit

Filmmaker on his Barns-Graham art doc in Karlovy Vary

by Richard Mowe

Mark Cousins holds up his storyboard for A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Mark Cousins holds up his storyboard for A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Photo: Richard Mowe
When filmmaker Mark Cousins reached into the inner world of relatively unsung 20th century Scottish artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham for his new documentary A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things he discovered a kindred spirit and soulmate lurking under the surface.

They share the same work ethnic, a wanderlust, insatiable energy, a certain obsessive nature, a mathematical aptitude, a thirst for creativity and a rare diligence in cataloguing their own lives.

“There were definitely points of connection,” said an elated Cousins, the day after the film had world premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic to an enthusiastic, packed audience in the festival’s vast main auditorium with a capacity of some 1200.

Mark Cousins in Karlovy Vary
Mark Cousins in Karlovy Vary Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
“The amount of material was formidable because she was so productive, right until the end. The critics didn’t respect her because she kept changing styles. There were lots of different genres and periods. My first love is architecture so the shape of the film was informed by that. I knew there would have to be some biographical stuff in there, of course, but I felt it should be more about her way of thinking. She was neuro-diverse as we now know it but I think it is valuable in culture generally to have people who look at things in a different way."

He feels she was under-appreciated over the years, yet Cousins admires her unrelenting output which aligns with his own prolific tendencies. Subsequently she has been revalued as “One of the most important women in British modern art”.

He was assisted in his endeavours by the Edinburgh-based Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust and its director Rob Airey. “We had access to the original negatives of photographs and we used AI to clean them up a bit, just another tool at our disposal. We filmed the paintings in hi-res and by the time they’re seen on screen someone workout that they were like a quarter of a million times bigger. Who knows what she would have thought, but given her adventurous spirit I feel sure she would have approved,” added Cousins.

Certainly she would have appreciated her inner-most thoughts being articulated by frequent Cousins’ collaborated Tilda Swinton while the filmmaker himself voices his own narration. He produces his own colourful storyboards

“Working with the Trust made it all a lot simpler. We didn’t have to go chasing after the owners of the rights to every bit of material - just some - and basically we had carte blanche to the archives. Rob was my sounding board and if I had any questions about a particular period he could help.”

Barns-Graham who was born in St Andrews in 1912 and died in 2004 aged 91, became recognised as a significant talent and a prominent member of the post-war, male-dominated St Ives Group. Her works latterly were collected by connoisseurs among them David Bowie. As a birthday present Cousins was given one of her paintings by his partner Gill Moreton, which set him off on a journey to establish its authenticity. As far as he is concerned it’s “an original”.

Mark Cousins on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: 'The critics didn’t respect her because she kept changing styles'
Mark Cousins on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: 'The critics didn’t respect her because she kept changing styles' Photo: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust
Cousins knew that there were certain threads he wanted to follow, especially in the wake of what he describes as “an epiphany moment in the Swiss Alps.” Barnes-Graham (known to friends as Willie) climbed a glacier in the late 1940s which is said to have changed her life. Thereafter her paintings were influenced by what she had seen on that day.

In one of her diaries she described the experience of the glaciers (beneath the north face of the Eiger). It’s as if “you can see into them and they feel alive,” she has been quoted as saying. Cousins followed in her footsteps to experience precisely what she had felt in awe of Nature. He notes that when comparisons are made between brains scans and images of glaciers visual equivalents can be discerned between the two.

He feels that one of the themes of the film deals with ageing and how, when women age, they tend to become “invisible.” The 59-year-old Cousins added: “I think as she grew older her brain resembles a kind of bird’s nest and I notice that in myself: the more I am exposed to emotions like happiness and sadness the better a filmmaker I could become. There are filmmakers who do very few films and that’s OK but I’m fairly prolific. I get my energy from travelling as she did. I tend to film incessantly in the way that other people like Virginia Woolf used to keep diaries and file away the results for future potential use - a kind of visual diary.”

Cousins who has Belfast roots, finds points of comparison between “Willie” and the subjects of two of previous films: “There is no doubt Alfred Hitchcock was a visionary and I would say ‘Willie’ was a visionary in her own way of seeing forms and shapes. It was interesting to go from someone like Hitch whom everyone knows, to someone about whom there has not been so much exposure. And with Orson Welles he had an obsession with looking upwards whereas Barnes-Graham did not look at the Alps, but looked down into the earth.” In his traditional way of working Cousins has kept his colourful “storyboards” which provide a paper key to the shoot.

A Sudden Glimpse To Deeper Things marks the irrepressible Cousins’ tenth feature. He was working on four other films while he was making it. He has already embarked on his next: a continuation of his cinema history series after The Story of Film (2011), The Story Of Children And Film (2013), and Women Make Film (2018). “I’ll be concentrating on the world of documentaries. It will be 16 hours long and so far I have been filming in Tokyo, Egypt, Brazil, America and Spain. I am four hours into it,” he smiles with a certain satisfaction.

Part of his remit in Karlovy Vary has been talking to journalists and spreading the word. “Earlier today I talked to two Romanian journalists, a Croatian and a French journalist and they all said that they were in love with this woman yet they had never heard of her before. That’s what’s so great about coming to Festival like this,” he beams broadly.

A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things will feature in next month’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (programme unveiled on Wednesday 10 July) with a release through Conic film distributors later in the year. An Italian release also has been announced with, elsewhere, a screening in St Ives on the agenda.

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