Peter Booth is not fond of giving interviews. The last he gave was seven years ago. So I’m not expecting an especially warm welcome. It’s not only his famed reserve that makes me think so. It’s his paintings: huge, apocalyptic, end-of-the-road, scary paintings. Paintings that speak of a gloomy disposition. Instantly recognisable as the work of Booth. Infernal landscapes. Sometimes volcanically ablaze. Sometimes wintry and barren, like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Sometimes populated by thuggish mobs of men who grin with cretin menace. Sometimes inhabited by a lone, bewildered man in a heavy coat pondering the devastation. Paintings that offer little hope for humanity. And really, given the current state of the world, who could blame him?
Except that Booth has been dealing with such subject matter – the threat of nuclear disaster, nature under siege by the human race, unruly mobs incited by megalomaniacs – since the 1970s. With each passing decade his work has grown all the more relevant. We might even call it tragically prescient.
With the opening this weekend of a major retrospective at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, a new generation will be introduced to the terrible wonder of his creative vision. The last survey exhibition of Booth’s work was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003, and his oeuvre has expanded considerably since then. After all, if you’re interested in the dark side of human nature, there’s no end of inspiration.
So I’m surprised to find a mellow, friendly voice with the softest trace of a Yorkshire accent answering the phone. Meeting face-to-face is out of the question. Booth’s doctors have told him that an encounter with COVID-19 could be a death sentence. At 82, with type 2 diabetes and other health complications, he is not taking any chances. Since the start of the pandemic, he has lived in virtual isolation with his wife of 40 years, fellow artist Magda Matwiejew, at their St Kilda home.
“I’m not a very good speaker,” he says, when I ask about his legendary dislike of interviews. “That’s probably one of the reasons, but anyway.”
Almost two hours later, we’re still talking. He’s an excellent speaker – thoughtful, articulate, funny, generous, candid. A natural storyteller. And with an artistic career spanning more than six decades, there are so many stories to tell. They all lead back to his childhood in the steel-making town of Sheffield, England, a place he finds himself thinking about more and more these days.
“When you are old, like I am now, at the end of life, the immediate past you don’t think about too much. You go back to the very beginning,” he says. “My work’s always been concerned in one way with what has happened to me throughout my life, but certainly over the last few years I’ve been thinking way, way back to when I was very, very young.”
Booth was born in 1940, into war, the first of three boys. His father worked in a steel mill and his mother was an usherette at a movie theatre. A month after Booth’s birth, Sheffield, a major supplier to the British arms industry, was blitz-bombed by the Germans. Seven hundred people were killed and more than half of the city’s houses destroyed. The city would be bombed another 15 times during World War II. These relentless raids left an indelible mark on Booth’s psyche.
“I can remember being taken down into the cellar with my brothers, and of course my parents, when the German bombers would come over dropping bombs, trying to knock out the steel mills,” Booth says. “If it’s true, and I think it is, that what happens to you as a child can often influence the way you are for the rest of your life, I think a lot of my apprehension about things in life came from that.”
Sheffield echoes through his work in imagery that recalls the fiery blasts of industrial furnaces, sooty urban landscapes, the mangled wreckage of buildings, and the quiet beauty of snow. The city insinuates itself into Booth’s imagination sometimes without him even being conscious of it. Take one of the paintings he created this year, simply titled Painting. A man whose body is completely bandaged sits atop a tall, grey, brick wall as snow falls. The man’s mouth gives a silent howl of anguish. After Booth finished the painting, he propped it up in his bedroom. “And I’d wake up in the morning and see him sitting there,” he says.
As Booth surveyed the work, he recognised the origins of that big brick wall. In Sheffield, he and his friends would climb such walls and throw stones onto the railway line, trying to hit the signals on the track to make them explode.
“If you hit the top of these round things with the stone in the right way, they’d go bang! So I think that maybe that’s where the wall came from initially … but I don’t know. The figure itself, of course, is to do with what’s happening today. People being injured, wars. The bandages could also be linked to my problems over the last year or two.”
Booth had a severe reaction to his first COVID vaccine, which caused his immune system to start attacking his joints, resulting in terribly swollen feet and hands that needed to be bandaged and took months to clear.
As TarraWarra curator and organiser of the exhibition Anthony Fitzpatrick writes in his detailed essay on Booth, the artist’s imagery comes from a combination of sources – dreams, reality, invention. Booth merges these elements to create his spectacularly expressive and bleak paintings. Drawing is central to his practice – it’s through multiple drawings that Booth explores ideas and compositions for his large canvases. He has drawn compulsively from his earliest years.
“Ever since I was a very young child I can remember sitting at the kitchen table and just drawing, and I’m talking about when I was five, six, seven years old, so I have always done this,” Booth says. “As far as I know there is no history in my family of anybody else being artistic, they’re all miners or steelworkers or what have you.”
The family migrated to Australia in 1958, when Booth was 18. They left Sheffield in the depths of winter and arrived at Melbourne’s Station Pier to a very Australian welcome: a day of 40 degrees, and a bunch of people on the quay shouting “go home you pommy bastards”.
“It was horrendous,” Booth says. “I was thinking, what have we come to? I was very homesick … but very wisely the government wouldn’t let you get your passport back unless you paid for the passage out to Australia, and of course I could never afford that. But at the end of a year or so, we’d settled down, and I’ve loved being here ever since.”
The family lived in a small weatherboard house in Altona, in Melbourne’s west, which Booth says was like the “wild west” in those days. For a while, he worked with his father in a steel mill in the nearby suburb of Brooklyn, and he did some other labouring jobs before deciding to go to art school. He applied to the National Gallery Art School, was accepted, and not long after was given a scholarship, which allowed him to focus entirely on his art. His teacher and mentor was one of Australia’s greatest artists, John Brack.
“The training in those days was very, very academic, a lot of life drawing, life painting, which in my opinion, if you’re a visual artist, is indispensable,” Booth says. “John Brack was a very, very widely read man, and he encouraged me to start reading. Before then, my reading matter had been, well, non-existent really.”
Like his mentor, Booth became an avid reader, and the work of his favourite authors, such as Russian greats Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Akhmatova, have influenced his own. Fitzpatrick observes that some of the figures in Booth’s paintings are like characters from Dostoevsky.
Time spent working in the National Gallery of Victoria’s prints and drawings department was also influential – Booth saw first-hand the works of William Blake, James Ensor, Francisco Goya and Samuel Palmer. Fitzpatrick has included etchings and engravings of these artists in the TarraWarra exhibition, to show the imprint they left on Booth’s imagination.
Over the past two years, Fitzpatrick has brought together 48 paintings and 60 works on paper created by Booth from the 1970s to the present, with works on loan from public and private galleries, including TarraWarra’s own collection.
“In many ways it does feel like his work is having more resonance as we continue to see the escalating impacts of the climate crisis unfolding,” Fitzpatrick says. “The rise of partisan politics and the noisy mob … conflict and warfare … concerns that have been there from the outset of his figure paintings in the late 1970s.”
While Booth is best known these days for his large, dramatic, figurative paintings, his first paintings were abstract. He was one of the lead abstractionists in the NGV’s famed exhibition of colour field painting, The Field, in 1968. But by the late 1970s, he began to diverge from the prevailing fashion for abstract paintings.
“When an artist is very young you’re obviously interested by whatever’s happening around the world at the time,” Booth says. “But then as time goes on, what is inside you starts to manifest itself, and I realised that I couldn’t really say what I wanted to say any more with abstraction, so I started to paint figurative pictures.”
I ask about the predominance of men in his paintings and drawings; women rarely appear. “I think it’s because, well, I’m male … but I think it’s primarily because most of the problems on the planet, if not all the problems on the planet, are caused by men.”
In the past, Booth has spoken of his pessimism about the fate of humanity, and his views have not shifted. “I try not to watch the news too much because it’s so depressing … the world’s not in a good place at the moment,” he says.
His faith resides in nature and its ability to heal and regenerate. Some of Booth’s most recent works, what he calls his “Garden of Eden” paintings, offer a glimmer of hope, with dense forests of muscular trees with giant foliage. A massive insect features in the foreground of one of these paintings, as though in defiance of plummeting insect numbers.
“They are to do with, perhaps, the planet as it once was, nature as it was, not as it is now, which is, it’s all being destroyed,” Booth says.
He drew inspiration too from visits to the Daintree in Far North Queensland, and from his own garden in St Kilda.
“We’ve got quite a big garden here,” he says. “We’ve got lots of trees and plants, it’s pretty wild, and so I do a lot of drawing out there sometimes.”
I tell him that his Garden of Eden paintings make me think of a post-human world, nature reasserting itself, taking back the planet.
“Yes, that too,” he says.
Booth continues to work in his studio every day. The only difference now is that he gets up even earlier, rising at 4am or 5am and working into the night. It’s what he loves best.
“Being isolated for nearly three years now hasn’t been a problem for me, because I’ve got my work,” he says. “If I didn’t have my work, I don’t know what would have happened.”
For all that, Booth makes no great claims about art’s power to effect change.
“It’s just what I do,” he says. “I can’t do anything else.”
Peter Booth is at TarraWarra Museum of Art, November 26 – March 13. twma.com.au
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