Rachel Campbell Johnston, 'Worlds Within', Marlborough Fine Art, 2012
the long-ago traveller, this Himalayan outpost, its houses tumbling like rubble
down precarious slopes, marked the start of an ancient trade route which,
winding its way upwards through shadowy pine forests and boulder-strewn gorges,
reached the windswept passes that would lead to Ladakh. For the modern-day visitor it has become a
tourist hub: a place from which walkers embark on their treks. But for Goodman, Manali was the beginning of
a rather different sort of journey. It
was from here that she set off on a long interior voyage.
“The soul never thinks without a picture,” wrote Aristotle in his De Anima. It’s an idea that haunts the whole of art history. Every image, however diligently literal, however carefully descriptive or determinedly “true-to-life” brings the imagination of the person who created it into play. Every landscape – even the most faithful representation – speaks of the soul of the person who painted it.
Twenty-five years ago, Goodman made her first drawings in Manali. She has been returning regularly ever since: making an annual migration of more that four thousand miles to stand on the same small patch of ground and paint. With the persistence of Cezanne gazing out from his garden at the rugged geometries of Mont St Victoire, she has stared for hour upon hour at the mountains that have reared up around her. She has painted the clouds as they roil about towering snow-capped pinnacles, the rock-faces that run like a wall round the world, the drenching rains of the winter and spring’s profusion of apple blossom, the mundane wooden hut where her breakfast of tomatoes on toast is cooked. And gradually, over the years, this landscape has come to feel like a home.
Why does this place strike so powerful an inner cord? Even to Goodman, the answer remains a mystery. And yet, it is probably no coincidence that, in the rich territories of Hindu mythology, Manali is known as the spot where the ark of Manu, the lawgiver, finally came to rest again after a great flood. It was from Manali that the world as man knew it was first seen afresh.
It’s a challenging image for an artist. Goodman, a graduate of first Camberwell and then the Royal Academy, a winner of the prestigious RA Gold Medal and the National Portrait Gallery’s coveted BP Portrait Award, is a long practised painter with a string of solo shows under her belt. A day never passes in which she does not work. Even when her duties as Artistic Director of the Prince’s Drawing School weigh heavily, she finds time at least to draw. Over the years she has slowly found the ways by which, working from life she can (as she describes it) “create a three dimensional reality on a two dimensional space”.
But the landscape of Manali, tests all preconceptions. It’s the sheer scale of the landscape, Goodman suggests: its massive peaks heaving upwards, obliterating all views. How can anyone who has grown up amid England’s gentle pastorals accommodate such enormity? The adult is returned afresh to the stunned amazement of the child.
It is this sense of freshness that pervades Goodman’s works. Mapping her way into uncharted territories with drawings, she arrives at canvases, often so large that they quite literally engulf her. She inhabits her images as she paints, moving about them as you might move through a real landscape. Their space becomes the place in which she lives.
From the 17th to the 19th century, a renowned school of miniaturists flourished in Himachal Pradesh. They painted the very same vistas which Goodman now tackles. And, though Goodman’s huge gestural canvases could hardly be more different from their finely-wrought confections, they share something of the same mood. In the Pahari miniatures, the mountain slopes form the backdrop to the legends of Krishna. They are the scenery against which spiritual stories unscroll. In Goodman’s paintings, they take on a similar role. They become the stage set upon which her imaginative life is played out. The Pahari painters made their pigments from local plants. They put the landscape, quite literally, into their pictures. Goodman, also, is searching for a sense of true colour – but, for all that she might begin being a little bit literal, what she aims for in the end is a more profound form of truth. Colour is linked to feeling in her work. She paints the landscape as it comes together: not just an assemblage of rocks, trees and plants but a mysterious conflux of memories, emotions and moods.
The world of Manali pervades Goodman’s imagination. It remains, long after she has returned to London. Alongside the Indian landscapes of this show, Goodman exhibits pictures of her family home in Phillimore Gardens. But the rooms which formed her backdrop from early childhood, the furniture rescued from Russia by refugee grandparents, the bohemian relics of a father’s Bloomsbury roots, are now viewed through the lens of her subsequent experience. A chair, planted stubbornly impassable at the centre of a painting, takes on the same monumental presence as a mountain. Textiles accrue an oriental richness. Goodman’s imagination builds bridges between her two homes. The stuffed and mounted head of a great bristly boar, when seen in Britain, appears no more than some grisly trophy. But when she incorporates it into a painting of Manali it finds a new life as Varaha, an incarnation of Vishnu.
As the viewer looks at these pictures, he will find himself moving through a jumbled world of fragments. These are paintings which work much like living experience. The components are all shuffled up. They get hopelessly mixed. Memories are overlain one upon the other. Each mood casts its light – or shadow – upon the next. The spectator stands upon ground that is constantly shifting.
From a distance you see a picture. But step closer and it disappears into a dense network of brush-strokes. The image melts into a forest of swipes and dribbles and splotches. Paint loops and spirals and eddies and sloshes. It is as if the world has dissolved back into that mysterious swell of feelings with which it was first sensed. Step back a few paces and it slowly resolves again – though perhaps not into quite the same picture that you saw the first time.
These canvases evoke a living sense of the relationship between the mind’s inner magic and the outer world. That is why these images are far more than mere paintings of places. They embody the imagination. They are the pictures with which the soul thinks.