Peter Howson (b. London 1958) is one of these painters who are “writing” their art with their life; or – in other words – they continuously provoke challenges and arrange “scenography” in order to give their work a reason for existence. In that sense Howson occupies the opposite side to, for example, Henry Matisse or Joan Miro who lived comparatively ordinary lives of family men and their paintings seemed to emerge, first of all, from their intense inner life. Peter would be one of these artists, with whom Marcel Duchamp was likely to be fascinated. Artists with an amazing personal story and controversial work. I found myself being fascinated by that story both as a humanist and a person studying art.
Peter Howson met with violence and humiliation at a young age being bullied by his classmates. He was small, quiet and “different”, he wouldn’t play football during brakes simply because he preferred to stay inside and draw. Lately, he names his sickness of the soul as the Asperger’s Syndrome. The psychological effects of that early loneliness and brutality were to be long-lasting. At 17 he got into Glasgow School of Art (Peter’s family moved to Scotland when he was four and he’s recognized as a “Scottish” artist) but he found himself fighting with bad, non-understanding teaching.
Disillusioned, he quits school after a year and enrolls in the British Army. It’s quite an unusual move for a sensitive, introverted boy with the history of bullying. He stands military life for nine months and appreciates the period as being one of the most formative in his entire life. Personally, I admire that choice made just in the right time and probably with the instinct that in order to learn how to swim one has to throw himself into deep water. Peter Howson had confronted his fears and perhaps bad memories and he did this struggling through the hard, an extreme way. That “extreme” trait will develop to be the painter’s alter ego – Howson as we know him now.
Having finished the art school (thanks to an encouraging teacher – Sandy Moffat) Peter starts yet another fight, this time lasting throughout his mature life of an artist and man. It’s a battle of wills between Peter Howson – a victim of his own psyche and Peter Howson – a man of action and adventure, a talented painter with a great insight in the human soul.
In his early 20s the painter faces his fascination with the gym and heroes in A. Schwarzenegger’s type. Soon he admits that because he took things to a ridiculous extreme he had became so muscle-bound that he hated the way he looked. Also, his first painting series would be an acute, although slightly caricatured depiction of body builders, hard men and hooligans. At the same time the artist speaks out how much he actually detests the world he depicts: I hate violence. And I believe that everyone, no matter how gentle they think they are, has the capacity for it within them…
Through mid-1980s his profile rose steadily and within relatively short period of time Howson found himself being collected by Madonna, David Bowie, Bob Geldof and being rejected by the respectable museums at the same time. Initially thrilled by the fame he soon realizes a trap he and his admirers have set up – a trap of generating works in a one, recognized style and within one thematic circle (just think about dozens of other artists who would never try to escape from such a comfortable trap). He knew he had to make himself different.
That’s how he threw himself into another very deep water – he became an official painter of the war in the former Yugoslavia, so-called Bosnian War (1992-1995). That was certainly the most extreme challenge of the “extreme painter”. First time he went unprepared and came back seriously sick, the home press labelled him “a coward”. He had returned and demanded an army uniform and to be treated like a soldier. That experience was about to make him a different man. The war belongs to the most barbaric in the history – a civil butchery based on ethnic grounds with mass fratricidal killings and rapes, tortures and mutilations. Howson called it a war of violence and humiliation becoming himself a kind of a poignantly experienced expert in both. What exactly the painter witnessed remains his mystery (he rejected the presence of journalists at his second visit) but he admits that he had never been closer to suicide and – paradoxically – never felt more alive.
A series of Howson’s Bosnian huge-scaled canvases caused a big debate in Great Britain and beyond with the major media – The Times, BBC being involved. And it started even before they had their premiere at the Peter Howson: Bosnia exhibition in the Imperial War Museum (London) in 1994. Some of the paintings appeared “too explicit” for a public view (especially the powerful Croatian and Muslim depicting a brutal rape), some were questioned on a basis of their historical value as the painter admitted not to witness himself some of the scenes (but “just” using his imagination).
The paintings belong to the most powerful images of the contemporary figurative art. They depict women being raped, castrated men, hanged animals, ragged refugees and above all – anonymous faces, formidable, unforgettable physiognomies of those who went through hell. These works have the drama, fantasy, emotional intensity and visionary quality of W. Blake’s and H. Bosch’s paintings. They were born from sincerity and an authentic spiritual pain, from passion and courage, from a sinful fascination by the evil side of the human nature and a heroic struggle against it. It has to be said that the contemporary art seems to be nothing like that…
Recently, Peter Howson makes headlines over abusing drugs and alcohol. He turned towards religious themes.
In Phaidon’s 20th Century Art Book his name appears among 499 most important artists of the past century.
Here is Howson’s official web page:Peter Howson
For further reading I do recommend books:
- Jackson, A. A Different Man, 1997
- Heller, R. Peter Howson, 1993