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The Three Stages of Sacrifice, Mary Barnes, 1991
Creativity, History and philosophy, Mental health

A creative rebirth

Chartered Psychologist Professor Victoria Tischler (University of Surrey) on an exhibition she has curated around the life and work of Mary Barnes.

04 October 2023

Artist, writer and mental health activist Mary Barnes (1923-2001) was a resident at Kingsley Hall in the 1960s. The therapeutic community in Bow, East London was Scottish Psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s radical experiment in anti-psychiatry. It was a place where boundaries between staff and residents were porous and where those in distress were offered natural healing instead of restraint or drug treatment.

After an uneventful but unhappy childhood in the south of England, Barnes trained as a nurse, working in the Middle East for a time before experiencing a mental breakdown in her 40s and being diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was aware of Laing’s text The Divided Self and sought him out for treatment.

Barnes underwent regression at Kingsley Hall, in her words she was going down to explore her anger, trauma and distress. In a foetal position, often naked and lying in a shroud-like box on the floor, she was cared for by Joseph Berke, an American psychoanalyst who came to the UK to work with Laing. Barnes and Berke formed an intense therapeutic relationship, documented in their jointly-authored text Mary Barnes: Two accounts of a journey through madness (1972). This was translated into more than 10 languages and was later adapted for the stage by playwright David Edgar.

Barnes’s creativity was ignited by Joseph Berke who invited her to scribble on the walls of Kingsley Hall. A self-taught artist, her finger-painted work, characterised by heavy application of oil paint became her trademark style. Initially she formed images of breasts and religious symbols, initially with her own excrement, creating controversy in the house. Berke soon provided oils and crayons and Barnes began making work prodigiously, creating huge murals in Kingsley Hall. 

Her early work often focused on her relationship with Berke and Laing and her mental state. Her IT series represents overwhelming emotional turmoil and offers a fine visual example of visceral, existential psychological pain. The work appears dense, dark and angry, featuring heavy application of black and sometimes red oil paint covering almost the entire surface of crude wallpaper backing paper. Joseph Berke described her artwork as coming screaming out of her. She described her creative expression as making her feel alive inside her body.

Barnes recovered after several years at Kingsley Hall. She stayed in London for a time, then moved to Devon. In 1985 she moved to Scotland where she dreamed of establishing a therapeutic community like Kingsley Hall, a safe space for those in mental distress to find respite and solace. Although this was never realised, Barnes stayed in Scotland until the end of her life, first in Falkland and later in the Highland village of Tomintoul. She continued to paint, and write, travelling and exhibiting her work, and giving talks about mental health.

The exhibition Mary Barnes: Rebirth and Revolution is part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts festival. Most of the work was created during her time in Scotland and features themes of faith, human relationships and nature connection, all of which were vital to the artist’s mental health and wellbeing. Overall the exhibition offers a redemption tale, of going down, coming back up, and being transformed. In the centenary year of her birth, Barnes’s art remains testament to the power of creativity to communicate pain, to heal, and to generate hope.

Mary Barnes: Rebirth and Revolution is at the Advanced Research Centre, University of Glasgow. G11 6EW. 6-21st October 2023.

Image: The Three Stages of Sacrifice, Mary Barnes, 1991. Credit: Falkland Estate.