Roberta Booth’s studio in Ashwell, Hertfordshire is tiny – 343cm plus a millimetre or two long, by much the same wide. I haven’t measured it: that’s the width of an early painting of ploughshares which spans one wall. She has an outbuilding as a picture store, but this painting she has kept in her sights while, on the face of it, her work has changed beyond recognition.
Those almost air-brushed (though not) chiaroscuro paintings of machined steel, Booth now sees as attempts to outdo the men at their own game. That austere approach gave way to a celebration of the out-and-out female; monochrome surrendered to a fiesta of colour and pattern; the rain-blurred English landscape seen through predatory windscreen wipers was replaced by the souk of Marrakesh.
Booth has travelled far, geographically to North Africa and New Zealand and in her spiritual quest to explorations of Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufi mysticism. Artistically too she wears her influences and affinities openly on her sleeve. Frank Stella’s passage from abstemious minimalism to Baroque exuberance gave her courage in the direction she was already taking. The luxuriance of Bonnard’s garden paintings at Le Cannet struck home though his visual language was foreign to hers. The impact of Guernica and, despite herself, the overwhelming effect of El Greco marked out a visit to Madrid.
Recently she wrote in a sketchbook, packed with compositional and botanical studies, visual and verbal observations, quotations from the Sufi poet Rumi and others: ‘I have been trying to bring so many things that have significance to me in my life at this time into my work.’ Her project has been an ambitious one: to try to encompass the eclecticism of contemporary experience in what she hopes might become an ecumenical sacred art.
This latest series of paintings takes its title, The Seven Cities of Love, from Rumi, and contains within the sequence a dramatic shift. Here we see the coming together of female and male in moments of sexual and spiritual union, and literally illumination: we are invited to rediscover our entirety and transcend the self awareness that separates us as human beings from the rest of creation.
ln one of the earlier paintings of the group, A Gate in the Heart of Love, the lower halves of the embracing lovers, who have set aside their lute and paintbrush, carry the Sanskrit words ‘om shanti’, divine peace, overseen by the meditating Buddha behind a blaze of lotus flamed nightlights. In The Secret Chamber of Love the lovers are joined in lotus position, rising from and returning to the waters. Their explosion into light finds a sinister echo in the left background where the single image of the first underground nuclear test in the Arizona desert has replaced sketchbook thoughts of tower blocks, trains and whirring helicopters. On the right, a trio of microlights approach like birds of peace or paradise. Beneath them is a scene which will become the setting for Return of the Source, a gold beribboned riverbank where the hunter embraces his lover whose skirt quite specifically derives from Byzantine Virgins Booth had seen in Cypriot churches. And here begins the shift.
The next picture, Iachus, sees Booth return to her love for early German painting. The landscape of the National Gallery’s Cupid Complaining to Venus by Cranach is caringly transcribed to form the backdrop to the lovers; the bride emerging from the waters, he reflecting earth and sky as if from a satellite; together uniting, hermaphroditic, in an exploding crown of encrusted light.
In Intimatations of Eden the view has moved round. Cranach’s apple tree, now in tempting mode, has been translated to a harvest-ready wheatfield and the German mountainscape has been replaced at the water’s edge by the village of Ashwell, whose precious, even sacred, springs, with preservation orders upon them, become the River Cam.
For all their intricacy these paintings have a new simplicity with the landscape opening out to a far horizon and symbols stripped away. The Sacred Dance, the final painting in this exhibition is a triptych, the traditional format of a Christian alterpiece. The meeting of the maiden and the wanderer, a courtly, medieval scene, is consummated with a joining of gold encrustations and streamlined blue draperies recalling the deft economy of the ploughshares painting. In the distance we can recognise Glastonbury Tor and the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge.
The journey now is in time rather than to far off lands: the New Jerusalem and the holy source we seek might be here on our doorsteps.
Michael Harrison, 2002