Mary Barnes: Boo-Bah

On at The Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, until 29 March, Mary Barnes: Boo-Bah celebrates the life and work of the renowned outsider artist, as well as her relationship with friend and therapist, Joseph Berke. We asked Dr Victoria Tischler, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at London College of Fashion to review the show and the opening night.
Mary Barnes, Small Figure

Mary Barnes, Small Figure

“‘Boo Bah’ focusses on the art work of Mary Barnes, one of the first residents to move into Kingsley Hall, a therapeutic community established by the forefather of anti-psychiatry RD Laing. Mary, formerly a nurse, sought Laing’s care after experiencing a psychotic breakdown in her 40s. In Kingsley Hall she was encouraged to ‘go down’ into her psychosis, in order to live through it and find recovery.

Joe Berke, a young psychiatrist from New York came to the UK in the 1960s, to work with Laing at Kingsley Hall. There he lived and worked with Mary, encouraging her to express herself with paints, following her near eviction for using her own excrement to decorate the walls. ‘Boo Bah’ documents Mary’s life and work. She was a devout Catholic and her raw, large-scale finger paintings often focus on religious themes. She also documented her inner torment named ‘IT’ in great, dirty, savage finger strokes, almost tearing up the wallpaper backing paper that she worked upon with evident intensity.  The relationships she built with Ronnie (Laing) and Joe who she depicts as a bear, also feature heavily.

Mary Barnes, Blackbird in a Tree

Mary Barnes, Blackbird in a Tree

It seemed fitting that the exhibition opening featured an intimate audience with Joe, now in his 70s but still working as a psychotherapist, regaling us with tales from Kingsley Hall. The audience gathered around Joe, sat in a chair, many sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him and his beloved dog Teva. It felt a little like a scene from Kingsley Hall in the 1960s when Joe discussed a violent encounter between he and Mary. The relationship between Joe and Mary was clearly a defining one for them both as their jointly authored text ‘Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness’ testifies. The proximity of Bow Arts to Kingsley Hall gives a special significance to the exhibition and one imagines Mary would be looking on approvingly from another kingdom.”

Dr Victoria Tischler

Following an exhibition at Camden Arts Centre in 1969, Barnes regularly showed her work worldwide in the 1970s and 80s, often accompanied by a talk on mental health and her own personal experience. Additionally, she lectured on mental health issues and the benefits of psychotherapy in Sweden and the United States.

Berke and Barnes’ strong bond has been kept alive in David Edgar’s play entitled Mary Barnes and in a book co-authored by Barnes and Berke called Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey through Madness. 

Click here for more information on the exhibition at The Nunnery Gallery

(Image left: Mary Barnes, Volcanic Eruption)

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