Art of Psychiatry Society

Mary Barnes at the Nunnery Gallery
March 30, 2015, 9:31 am
Filed under: Art

Boo Bah PV











The Nunnery Gallery at Bow is currently showing paintings and drawings by Mary Barnes.  Barnes took an unusual route to becoming an artist: most of the works on show were created whilst Barnes was a resident at Kingsley Hall, an experimental therapeutic community founded by counter-cultural psychiatrist R.D. Laing.  On her death, Barnes bequeathed much of her collection to her therapist and friend, Dr Joseph Berke, and her nickname for him: “Boo-Bah” is the title of the show.  This is the first major show of her works since the 2010 retrospective at SPACE Studios.

Born in 1923, Barnes joined the British Army during World War II and subsequently worked as a nurse in Frankfurt and London.  She suffered her first breakdown in 1952 and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. She contacted Laing in 1963, after reading his seminal book “The Divided Self”.  She felt that Laing could help her and her brother Peter who was also diagnosed with the same disorder. Initially, she saw Laing for regular session.  Then between 1965 and 1970, she became a patient of Berke and joined Kingsley Hall, a patient-centred, non-institutional and non-interventionist therapeutic community.  In Kingsley Hall, she was encouraged to regress to an infantile like state; she squealed, refused to dress or wash, was fed from a bottle and slept naked in a wooden chest.
Around the same time, Mary started to paint the walls with her own faeces. “My first paintings were black breasts over the walls of the Hall”, recalled Mary in 1969.  Then one day, “Joe gave me a tin of grease crayons. ‘Here, just scribble’. I did, on and on.  Suddenly, a picture emerged, a woman kneeling with a baby to her breast”. From the crayon scribbles, she developed finger-painting and vivid oil paintings. It is these paintings that are now on view at the Nunnery Gallery.

The works on display range from composed, figurative painting to large-scale psychedelic works, with nature and religious symbols as a constant motif.  A rusty trunk stands in the middle of the gallery, with drawings sprawling out. This creates a sense of urgency, epitomising the importance of the creative process in Mary’s journey through madness. Because so much is known about Mary’s life, it can be difficult at times to consider her paintings without imaging her state of mind.  The curator has chosen not to label or date her works, allowing us to form our own conclusions. We are free to respond emotionally to the raw energy of her works.  Texts from Mary’s writings are often intersected with her paintings, creating a sense of an on going dialogue between the viewers and Mary.  Laing once wrote, “Rilke [early 20th century poet] wrote of “ the other side of nature”.  Mary gives us the “other side of the flesh”.”

”Boo-Bah” also contains contextual items, such as photos of Barnes visiting doctors and patients in Sweden.  You can listen to an audio extract of a BBC radio play Barnes co-wrote by David Edgar.  Berke quotes David Edgar in his epilogue on Mary’s website, “When Mary died, several people asked, as if in an afterthought, if she was cured. Certainly, Mary was able to undertake those practical life tasks that were beyond her in madness. But she was never and could never, be cured in the sense of returned to normal. Still passionate, intense, demanding, and self-obsessed, she was also generous, funny and kind. It was a privilege to tell her story.”

This exhibition is a wonderful exhibition of Mary Barnes’ creative outputs at Kingsley Hall.

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