Approaching the Mystery

Without prayer, and cheated out of gods,
People stroll reasonably in the dust.
— Hesse, Ode to Hölderlin

O marvel! a garden amidst fires!
My heart has become capable of every form:
[...] I follow the religion of Love: whatever way
Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.
— Ibn Al-Arabí, The Tarjumán Al-Ashwáq

Driving from Brighton, I found the best way to reach Roberta Booth at her studio in Ashwell was to take the Al and turn off by Baldock Services. With symbolic aptness, this involved both leaving and driving under the north-bound motorway, in order to proceed eastward towards the Domesday-listed village which this visionary artist has long called home. From the Al to Ashwell is only a couple of miles or so – but what country miles they are! The din of traffic gone, the well-farmed landscape unfolds with generous, welcoming breadth: suddenly, earth and sky, tree and cloud – air, even – are palpable once more.

As with a good many English artists of visionary quality – from Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash and John Piper to Cecil Collins and Derek Jarman – the genius loci, or spirit of place, is of signal importance to Booth. But if she continues to spend many a reverie-rich hour walking the fields around her Cambridgeshire village, Booth’s soulful sense of the mystery and the magic which, for her, lie at the fructifying heart of life has long been nourished by other sorts of journey. Her sketchbooks reveal, not just the atmospheric, concisely rendered fruits of years of travel to such places as Guernsey, Spain and Morocco – a trip to the Taj Mahal is planned for this summer – but also the poetic impact of various spiritual and philosophical texts. From Taoist sages and the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi to Hermann Hesse, George Steiner and Iris Murdoch, here are the sort of elective affinities that have helped this independent-minded artist to create some of the most radical and provocative images (in the true sense ofthe words) in recent art.

In the introduction to her survey British Art Since 1900, Frances Spalding speaks of an element of characterful individualism in that art – individualism which Spalding believes has liberated a certain type of artist from any unthinking adoption of existing styles. One could hardly wish for a better contemporary example of this than Roberta Booth. In the catalogue essay which he wrote for her 2000 Duncan Campbell show, the late Norbert Lynton – one of Booth’s strongest champions – spoke of the distinctiveness and “amazing generosity” of work such as the quartet of oil paintings that constitute the 1998-99 In that same garden. As Lynton noted, such visual richness belongs to “a post-Pop world, as well as a post-Cubism world where images can be assembled from many sources.”

The literate viewer will detect in Booth transmuted elements of both Jackson Pollock and the Douanier Rousseau, Howard Hodgkin and Frank Stella, Claude Monet and Gillian Ayers, elements combined in a surreality (“greater reality”) that is entirely of Booth’s own making. And that same viewer will search in vain for any trace of the tediously theorised eclecticism and shrink-wrapped irony that, over the past decades, have accompanied much self-consciously Post-modernist art. The fierce yet also unusually open and searching intelligence that is Booth’s has long helped propel her art far from the ever-leaner fare that may be peddled as so-called cutting-edge work today. For hers is an intelligence, an imagination, that has long shaken off the disillusioned and debilitating dust of any exclusively historical attitude to contemporary art and life, in order to drink from the replenishing well of what such image-sensitive thinkers as Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade, Gaston Bachelard and Joseph Campbell called the trans-historical world of healing archetype and mythopoetic presence.

In the current show, such a shamanically-oriented world – a hard-won, richly planted garden amidst fires – is as vividly present as it has ever been in Booth. Technical qualities are at their customary level, with this artist’s special combination of pin-point drawing, high-keyed colour and multi-delineated space seemingly set in disciplined yet full-on search of that register which Chagall once called “the colour of Love”. In the major painting that is The Impenetrable Secret, Booth has attained perhaps her most satisiying synthesis to date of the intricate, the intimate and the fabulous with the broadly planned (and planed) and the formally compelling.

If some consummate passages of lightly veiled detail here speak of this artist’s awareness and appreciation of that visionary aura which can attend the otherwise scrupulous realism of a Northern artist such as Dürer, the rhythmically weighted balance of the contrapuntal whole speaks with equal potency of that culture-crossing, ego-dissolving quest for spiritual integrity and wholeness which has long distinguished Booth’s work. Like the words of the hoopoe in The Conference ofthe Birds, Farid Ud-Din Attar’s classic Sufi text of spiritual struggle and enlightenment  (and long one of Booth’s favourite books) such work can help us begin to sense the ennobling grandeur of what Attar, with esoteric simplicity, calls “the mystery”. What might such (an ultimate) mystery be? Whether a matter of alchemy or religion, natural spiritual capacity or artistic intuition, it is a mystery embedded deep in the poetics of these new works by Roberta Booth: some of the most original, and yet (as holistic psychology would rightly have it) trans-personal paintings of recent times.

Michael Tucker, Professor of Poetics, University of Brighton, 2008

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