A Sudden Glimpse To Deeper Things


Reviewed by: Richard Mowe

Mark Cousins’ documentary portrait of 'one of the most important women in British modern art' will have its world premiere at Karlovy Vary
"A fascinating portrait of a woman ahead of her time." | Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF

After Alfred Hitchcock, Jeremy Thomas and Orson Welles Mark Cousins turns his attention to a neglected 20th century Scottish painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

It’s almost a self-interrogation by Cousins (who narrates his own words with a little help from Tilda Swinton voicing the artist’s innermost thoughts) and deals as much with his own fascination of his subject as the subject herself.

Known universally as Willie, she was often mistaken for a man, which suited her fine in the relatively male-dominated St Ives modernist group of painters.

Considered as one of the most important women in British modern art, she was an inspirational figure who received only sporadic recognition at home which Cousins put to rights with an exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery in 2022.

Much of the research for the documentary must have been for the art installation and the film complements it perfectly. The task must have been made easier by the fact that Barns-Graham carefully documented her own progress and also catalogued her own life.

Sensibly Cousins doesn’t opt for a straight biographical account but stitches together meticulously fragments from her life that at the end of the day produce a fascinating portrait of a woman ahead of her time and in a wider way observations of the whole creative process.

The over-riding sense that comes through is that the two of them are distinctly kindred spirits. The obsessive nature of a neurodiverse individual provides a hypnotic overtone to the film, which was made with the support of the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust.

A cataclysmic moment came in 1949 at the age of 36 when she climbed the Grindelwald glacier in Switzerland when experienced what can only be described as “a spiritual and artistic epiphany”. The filmmaker observes that when you cut between brain scans and images of glaciers you can see visual equivalents between the two.

Thereafter Barns-Graham drew on those experiences for her art. Cousins broadens the scope to allusions to climate change and shrinking glaciers as well as the nature of creativity and how it evolves from youth to older age. There is also an element of feminist rebellion in that she disregarded her landed gentry father’s disapproval of her artistic tendencies and left the bracing temperatures of her home town of St Andrews for the warmer climes of Cornwall. She was surrounded by such creatives as Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Although the view of the artist is very much percolated through Cousins’ eyes he manages to get behind her retina to make it seem as if it is her vision of herself as revealed in a telling section towards the end of the film.

He manages to deal revealingly with her “synesthetic’ leanings in which the senses are mixed up - the subject sees sound and hears colour and the camera frequently completes her abstracts on screen.

Cousins has delivered an organic and deceptively simple evocation of a highly complex character.

The film will be released in the UK and Ireland through Conic in October

Reviewed on: 03 Jul 2024
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Consideration of the painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

Director: Mark Cousins

Year: 2024

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: UK


Karlovy 2024
EIFF 2024

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