Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Rock Theme, St Just


Not on display

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 1912–2004
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 608 × 1066 × 25 mm
frame: 660 × 1118 × 61 mm
Presented by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust with Art Fund support 2018


Rock Theme, St Just 1953 is an oil painting in a landscape format that combines a representational landscape setting (St Just in West Penwith, Cornwall) with an abstract configuration of planes and colours that appears to describe a large structure made of stone. This structure dominates the composition; only a narrow upper portion of the canvas sets the scene within the landscape of the coast in West Cornwall. The horizon line is very high, both the sky and sea are painted in lighter and darker shades of a chalky grey respectively, and a thin strip of headland (green fields with a stony cliff surface) delineates the shape of the land. If the foreground of the work describes St Just, the distance might denote Cape Cornwall, a prominent, low headland situated to the north-west.

The landscape of West Penwith contains a number of prehistoric megaliths, menhirs and stone circles. The structure in the foreground of this painting might refer to Ballowall Barrow, a prehistoric funerary cairn located on the clifftops above St Just formed of a mound and two circling drystone walls. A frontal plane painted in pale grey dominates the composition. A black semi-circle at its lower edge suggests a cavity or arched entryway, and the thinness of the pale grey paint used to complete this facade reveals underneath the suggestion of a smaller, circular form. To the right of this stands a distinct structure, a more upright form with a slightly protruding base which has been painted in paler white. In the middle-ground of the image, an ambiguous black plane seems to stretch from inland towards the sea, possibly delineating the outline of land around the cairn.

Barns-Graham’s thin washes of paint and use of scraping in areas suggest dry and chalky rock. The painting’s colours, forms and the artist’s application of paint therefore each contribute to the evocation of a landscape of stone. Such an investigation into the structures of stone and the spatial environment of West Penwith continues the tradition of constructive approaches to form and space, strongly associated with the area after the relocation of Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson to Carbis Bay, near St Ives, in 1939. Although Gabo had emigrated to the United States by 1954, throughout the 1950s both Hepworth and Nicholson continued to take inspiration from features of the landscape in West Cornwall, including prehistoric monuments. Hepworth’s work of the early 1950s includes, for example, Monolith (Empyrean) 1953 (Kenwood House) and Stone Sculpture (Fugue II) 1956 (Tate T12287). The combination of a prominent foreground structure with a distant coastal view composition in Rock Theme, St Ives also places this work within the tradition of post-cubist painting notably developed by Nicholson, in drawings and paintings which presented a still life arrangement in the foreground of a window scene and landscape beyond.

Since the 1920s Nicholson had been developing an aesthetic for his painting that transgressed academic appraisals of a seamless painterly ‘finish’, by adding crudely-textured substances to his pigments and by physically scraping his supports. This painting by Barns-Graham similarly refers to the textures of stone so that, although it is not in many ways naturalistic, it recreates a tactile relationship between the viewer and the subject of their gaze. The dominant structure, punctuated by hollowed-out semi-circles, may also reflect the continued impact in St Ives of earlier constructive works, such as Nicholson’s white reliefs or small carved sculptures of the mid-1930s (for example, 1936 [white relief sculpture – version 1], Tate T07274), in which geometric planes often include circular hollows that are carved into wooden boards or plaster forms to complicate the interrelation of planes.

Rock Theme, St Just extends this tradition while finding new means of exploiting the power of relations of colour, line, form and texture to describe a sense of place. It is an important transitional work that demonstrates, more explicitly than any other of the time, how Barns-Graham combined an emphasis on the sculptural planes and cavities of rock formations with references to a specific place. Also in Tate’s collection is a pencil and oil work, made the following year (Composition February I 1954 [Tate T02237]), that is comparable in composition to Rock Theme, St Just though much smaller and more uniformly abstract. By the later 1950s, Barns-Graham’s work had become entirely abstract in idiom though still rooted in an experience of landscape and place (see, for example, White, Black and Yellow (Composition February) 1957 (Tate T15052).

Further reading
Lynne Green, W. Barns-Graham: A Studio Life, London 2001, reproduced p.157.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: Movement and Light Imag(in)ing Time, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, 22 January–2 May 2005.

Rachel Smith
November 2017

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