Mary Barnes: Transformation Through Art & Madness
The Nunnery Gallery will be having a Mary Barnes exhibition in the new year, starting in January 2015. As an intern, part of my job is to start the ball rolling on the exhibition, delving into the literature and art created by Mary. Being new to the art field myself, I wanted to go about researching for the exhibition starting from the ground up, and with Mary Barnes this seems to be the only way to truly understand her paintings. Mary’s fame came from both her story and her art; she constructed a world for herself through the schizophrenia that plagued her throughout her middle age and the art that emerged from this madness.
When Mary checked herself into Kinsley Hall in 1965, right down the road from Bow Arts Trust, she was on the verge of a mental breakdown, and would soon be spending months —even a year—in bed, clinging to sheets and being either bottle or tube fed. Mary would later describe this time in her life as a “transformation” period, a time of rebirth and a reliving of a second childhood of sorts. She regressed to the point of smearing faeces over the walls of the therapeutic community, and in these moments of hysterics her first paintings were born.
George Barber says of Mary’s work, “In an age where art often requires a conceptual narrative, Barnes has back story in spades. This is the real thing.” Mary’s emergence as an artist came from a genuine time of trial and self-searching, a time of deep self-isolation and inner renewal. As soon as Kinsley Hall’s staff gave her paint (to replace her painting with her own waste), she created art that was both provocative and saturated with colour, with themes of childhood, Christ, and motherhood evolving onto large canvases.
Mary Barnes was our neighbour; she lived, breathed, regressed, progressed, and created work in walking distance of Bow Arts. Her story is remarkable in how she came through her madness and seemed to profit by it in the end: she gained international recognition through her work and co-wrote the now famous Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness alongside her young experimental psychotherapist Joseph Berke. Her paintings, much like her writing, bring about a sense of yearning, of another world not quite accessible on the surface. Her rebirth was also a reliving of childhood, and she painted with her fingers, often drawing figures resembling that of a child’s, crudely drawn and vivaciously coloured.
Her story of success inspires interest in her paintings, and her paintings do the same for her life: the viewer comes away wanting to know more about her, her struggles and breaches of sanity, and how her paintings, perhaps more than anything, seemed to lead her out of madness.
Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness
- Martha Orlet