Tilda Swinton to portray celebrated Scottish artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in feature film
Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton is to portray one of Scotland's leading female artists of the 20th century in a new feature film.
Swinton will read from the personal diaries and letters of St Andrews-born Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in a “theatrical documentary” that will recall her life and career-changing holiday in Switzerland, which inspired her to focus on painting glaciers.
Award-winning filmmaker Mark Cousins, a regular collaborator with Swinton, travelled to what remains of the Grindelwald glacier to retrace the footsteps of the celebrated abstract artist, and explore the impact climate change and global warming has had.
Cousins' film is said to voice the "innermost thoughts" of Barns-Graham, who developed an interest in abstract art while studying at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1930s. Its principal, Hubert Wellington, suggested she should move to St Ives, in Cornwell, where a number of leading British artists were living and working.
Barns-Graham, who moved to St Ives and retained a studio there until her death in 2004, became a highly-regarded painter, draughtswoman, printmaker and colourist during a career that spanned more than 60 years.
Edinburgh-based writer and director Cousins has previously made documentaries on the filmmakers Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. His new documentary on Barns-Graham, A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things, is due for release next year.
Previous films starring Swinton, who lives in the Highlands, include Young Adam, Vanilla Sky, Michael Clayton and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Funded by government agency Screen Scotland, Cousins’ feature has the backing of the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, which was set up by the artist in 1987.
The documentary has evolved from Cousins' first foray into visual art last year, when he created a four-screen installation recalling Barns-Graham’s “epiphany” at the Grindelwald glacier in 1949.
An official announcement on the film states: “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things is the story of an unusual creative brain and a magnificent lifelong obsession. One day in May 1949, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, then 36 years old and an emerging figure in the modernist St Ives group of artists, climbed the Grindelwald glacier in Switzerland. She experienced an aesthetic and spiritual epiphany, which rewired her brain and transformed her art.”
Cousins said: “At school, I was passionate about both art and maths. My heroes were visual people who seemed to see geometry and engineering in their work – such as Orson Welles and Paul Cezanne. In the early 1990s I discovered another one of that tribe, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, whose paintings analysed glaciers like Cezanne’s analysed mountains.
"Decades later, at the Barns-Graham Trust, I discovered how prolific she was, how unstoppable, and fell in love with her work in a new way. Her visual thinking, her wanderlust and her dynamism excited me.
"Add in her synaesthesia and the near disappearance of the Alpine glaciers and you’ve got a subject that’s perfect for cinema. I had to make this film. Barns-Graham’s work feels very contemporary to me.”
Rob Airey, director of the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, has been a consultant on the film.
He said: “Visiting the Grindelwald Glacier in 1949 had a major impact on Willie’s practice as an artist. The changes wrought on the glacier due to climate change since should have an equally profound effect on us all.”
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