Peter Howson's art is grotesque. This isn't slander, nor a lazy adjective, but the most apt term to describe his large portraits and melodramatic scenes that are almost religious in their composition. Exploring issues such as class, grief, loss and addiction - Howson's paintings have come to be revered as some of the most important works in contemporary figurative art.
Arguably Scotland's most important contemporary artist, at least in portraiture and figurative styles, Howson cut his teeth digesting, depicting and trying to make sense of the horrors of war. Comissioned as the official war artist for the 1993 Bosnian civil war, on behalf of London's Imperial War Museum, the artist was tasked with capturing one of the most brutal episodes in modern memory.
Being subjected to such overwhelming circumstances, particularly from the perspective of a working artist, can shape and condition the way that said artist will look at the world - especially if the human is chosen as their subject. It raises questions about what we're truly made of, physically and metaphorically, yet also inclines one to not ask too many questions either for fear of further exposure or reminders of what has passed.
Growing up in a religious household (drawing a cruxifix is his first memory of making art) may be partly attributable to the Scottish artist's inclination to look deeply at people and their lives, telling a realistic and honest story, whilst embellishing it with deep symbolic imagery to add allegorical depth to each work.
Capturing working-class life, particularly in his iconic piece from 1987 - Heroic Dosser - whereby a homeless man painted from memory resembles a seaman standing stoic and immovable on-board a ship, with a distant gaze more easily associated with portraits of victorious generals after war. Carrying all the weight of loss and the pressures to lead on his shoulders, still the figure remains. These depictions were, and in many ways, still are, the artist's bread and butter. Only now, it's less about their occupation and sociodemoagraphic background as the spirit of defiance against living hell that attracts Howson.
Physically, the figures are grotesque in their proud bearing of flesh, with the rippling muscle and sinewy shapes that we expect from anatomical drawings. His mainly male figures carry an awkward gait, usually set against a dark background colour palette that offers little sensorial hope for the audience, instead trapping them in the unsettling world these brutal men inhabit. In certain paintings, the defiance of the character emanciaptes this consuming world. In others, the figures contribute to it.
The Blind Leading The Blind, a 1991 series that shows a motley crew of figures in a trance-like state following a symbolic leader - one being a man in a wheelchair, another an angry pack of dogs - is a powerful poke at Scottish issues of social class and the resulting violence that manifests from the fertile discontent and alienation experienced in their impoverished surroundings. Here, their demeanour is more of a reflection of their environment than a personal condemnation of individual behaviour. As such, these images are as poetic as political.
One of the artist's most visceral depictions of human behaviour and suffering is in his controversial portrait of Celtic Football Club's founder Brother Walfrid. Having no prior knowledge of the man, nor being a supporter of the club, Howson took his research seriously for the commissioned project, learning about the social and political circumstances that led to the club's foundation. In a little known, or at least often overlooked chapter in history - the Irish Famine is shown in gritty detail surrounding the priest.
Howson said, “Some of the figures look grotesque – but that’s what I do and poverty and famine are grotesque. Throughout history, artists like Bruegel and Goya were interested in grotesque imagery because it goes right into the soul of people.
Ultimately, the expressions, emotions and sentiments of the figures are only partly about those visible in the painting. Perhaps more importantly is the autobiographical nature of his works. Duality always exists. Although hopelessness may be more pervasive in some pictures than the resilience that shines through in others, we are given a glimpse of both. Howson has himself had to overcome addiction problems, both to drugs and alcohol. When we see pain, weakness, strength and hope, we're looking at characters who are all fragments of the artist's own psyche. When he paints their story, he's trying to understand his own.
For large parts of the artist's career - as large as chunks of years - he has very few memories due to vast periods of blackout. Howson's figures are extreme, in scale and style, amplified versions of reality, but perhaps more ordinary to one prone to viewing the world through such an extreme lens. Violence is broken by genuinely sincere moments - the glint of an eye usually, or the single-minded resolve it takes for a person to overcome the surrounding melee of violence. This sincerity is the goodness the artist sees in himself - his own path at redemption.
Peter Howson's paintings are grotesque, but they're also beautiful, sad and ultimately confessional modes of catharsis that are keeping a humble man alive, one who knows hell as well as his hands and whose nightmarish visions of reality give us an insight not just into an artist, but into a human being who has been to war - both literally and personally - and come out the other side.
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