Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in Switzerland – A New Discovery

Painting with abstract large abstract shapes in blues, greens and greys. At the centre is a small black oval.

Glacier Chasm, 1951, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland

The Grindelwald Experience

In May 1949 Wilhelmina Barns-Graham travelled to Switzerland. Essentially a holiday rather than an opportunity to work in a new environment, the visit was to have a profound effect on her art. While there she did have the opportunity to draw and make some watercolours of the Grindelwald Glacier on which she was able to climb. She had the vison to appreciate the potential of what she saw, the apparently solid ice on which she stood being in a state of constant flux, readjusting, expanding and sliding, in response to daily fluctuations in temperature and to seasonal variations in climate. To her the glacier was alive.

Glacier Drawing Ii 1950 BGT6404

Glacier Nocturne, 1950, Oil on board, BGT6404

The Living Glacier

Barns-Graham was later to describe this experience, describing the “massive strength and size of the glaciers, the fantastic shapes, the contrast of solidity and transparency, the many reflected colours in strong light, the warmth of the sun melting and changing the forms, in a few days a thinness could become a hole…a piece could disintegrate and fall off, breaking the silence with a sharp crack and its echoes. It seemed to Breathe! Enormous standing forms, polished like glass with sharp edges,…which could include buried in it and on it, huge and tiny stones and rubble. The likeness to glass and transparency, combined with solid rough edges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through, and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Her paintings resulting from this experience were to change her life, and are still sought after today.