Peter Howson – an “extreme” painter


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





About kasia

Born in Poland. Lives in Ireland, Cork. Visual artist. View all posts by kasia

6 responses to “Peter Howson – an “extreme” painter

  • mirbernard

    I’ve read that Howson left his wife and a young child in Glasgow to live and work in London. I know that artists are very liberated when it comes to “family” life. But doesn’t the fact contradict your vision of him being “heroic” and that unusual?…

  • skonieczna


    That’s an interesting issue that you rising up here, but I don’t think that anyone but Peter Howson should make competent and valid comments on that. What I know is that he often admits (in his interviews) a guilt about his choices and his way of life – again it’s not that easy thing to do. And apart from that, I would be very careful to mix up a private, intimate life of an artist (I mean on a social level, not an inner live from where all the ideas come) with his work. There are simply two, often very different universes which, somehow, manage to exist and to function at the same time.

  • jeff

    Caravaggio murder someone over a tennis game.
    I still love his paintings despite this short comings and his criminal behavior.

    David and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon I.
    Look up Reign of Terror, these people murdered thousands of people.

    Picasso ill treated the women in his life.

    Rubens married a 14 year old and was in his late 40’s when he did so, so by todays standards he is a rapist.

    You get my drift, the art and the person while connected do not mean that the work is diminished by their actions in life.

    Life is messy and complicated.
    Art is a way of bringing some order and beauty to the mundane aspects of life, what the artist does in her/his down time is there business.

  • skonieczna

    What’s the point you are making? Aren’t you repeating what I wrote, just giving different names as an example? Did you get my drift? My entire article is about the appreciation of the artist’s life, I don’t care what he did “wrongly” (it would be a sheer nonsense to do this) – I’m not his priest…I adore his work and I’m fascinated that he managed to achieve what he did, because he put a lot of spiritual (physical too) struggle into it. Thanks for comment…

  • jeff

    I think your misunderstanding me, my point was more in context to what mirbernard was hinting at.

    My point is that a lot of artist are very complicated people and that there lives are not a simple like a plumbers.

    Yes I was repeating what you had said, but by bringing artist such a Jacque Louis David into a disscussion like this you get a better sense of proportion on this subject. David did some very horrible things in comparison to Howson, that is well worth talking about in relation to a life and ones art, if you read about him he was a monster.

    Howson just has Asperger syndrome which caused him a lot problems and caused him to have to deal with some real demons until he found out he had it.

    I like Howson’s work a lot and I have two nice books on him which are hard to find now.

    You should also check out Stephan Campbell’s work.
    He just passed away and is considered to be one of the best painters from Scotland, very amazing romantic, modern painting. I think he’s more interesting that Howson, and I don’t say that lightly.

    It took me a few years to come around to his work it was not easy to look at the first time.

    If you look at my older work you can see how much I like Howson, I quote his characters in some paintings.

  • skonieczna

    It looks like misunderstanding….that’s why I write a name of my correspondent at the beginning of the answer, just to make clear whose post I’m addressing… I haven’t met with Campbell’s work before but I must admit it’s pretty unusual too. I think it’s more ambiguous than Howson’s and it’s got that chilling quality – you feel amazed and yet quite uneasy, your engagement with the work fights against your insecure feeling…It’s the same with Howson’s but just at the higher intensity…
    From yours my favourites are “Dark landscape(homage to david linch)” and “Smoking Books”. I love the dark palette and blues.

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