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KARLOVY VARY 2024 Competition

Review: A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things

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- In his new film, Mark Cousins explores the life and work of British painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and discovers a true kinship with her view of the world

Review: A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things

The title of the new film by Mark Cousins, A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things [+see also:
interview: Mark Cousins
film profile
]
, could easily refer to his career as a documentary filmmaker whose essay films and series on the history of cinema reveal surprising angles and recognitions of unexpected connections within the art form. After moving to a different territory with The March on Rome [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mark Cousins
film profile
]
, he now turns his singular gaze onto British 20th century painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in the documentary which has just world-premiered in Karlovy Vary’s Competition. 

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Cousins feels a kinship with this uniquely original and often overlooked artist. They share this exact quality of seeing the world through exciting and, for most people, hidden associations and reflections. A child of minor Scottish gentry from St. Andrews in Fife, Barns-Graham had synesthesia, as her biographer, the art historian Lynne Green, says in the voice-over. This allowed her to come up with an inventive system connecting colours and letters, which informed a lot of her work that was typically based on an “armature” of grids, as Cousins puts it. So, for instance, she painted a picture based on the lyrics of Agnus Dei, with different colours corresponding to the letters, resulting in a series of squares that stand in dialogue with each other. Her notebooks reveal an obsessively systematic artist who used mathematics to strike a balance in her often abstract paintings. 

In an early example of her ability to link apparently completely separate things, Cousins cites – from Barns-Graham’s diaries read in voice-over by Tilda Swinton – an observation about the colour of rocks, grey socks and elephants. She encountered these animals in a circus in St. Ives in Cornwall, where she moved to in order to get away from her strict father who was against her becoming an artist. Both her hometown and St. Ives are located in bays and share a similar quality of light. The latter’s half-moon shape is used in many of her works, both literally and abstractly. 

A key event for Barns-Graham and her art was climbing a glacier in Switzerland in 1949. Here we have a dramatised scene, with an actress (it’s hard to tell if it’s Swinton due to the framing and make-up) filmed in a location that could be this very place or another one standing in for it. Cousins employs a fisheye lens to focus on the textures and immersive sound design to convey another synesthesic aspect: can a painting be heard? This segment is as significant to the film as the event was for the artist’s aesthetics. 

Later, Barns-Graham traveled through Italy, which strongly influenced her use of colours, but the textures and patterns of the glacier remained key for her art all the way until her death in 2004. She often used mirrors to make sure her paintings worked regardless of the way you looked at them. Cousins, a fan of Fibonacci and MC Escher, thus relates to her on many different levels, and wonders if they might have brushed shoulders at an exhibition in Edinburgh in the 1980s. 

Cousins also addresses Barns-Graham’s position as a woman artist throughout the decades, and mixes art with science and nature in order to allow the viewer to see the world through her eyes. Stylistically, he also stays within his usual approach, with meticulous research, dynamic editing, occasional tasteful animations and a non-intrusive, yet at times dissonant, string score. His approach fits the subject perfectly, but we get a feeling that this particular film would have benefitted from a slightly trimmed running time. 

A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things was produced by the UK's Bofa Productions and Reservoir Docs has the international rights.

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