Peter Howson’s story is one of seeking dignity in human suffering and violence, and finding redemption; it is also uniquely Scottish. When The Apple Ripens, Howson’s retrospective at Edinburgh City Arts Centre (27 May-1 October), is a timely showcase to celebrate his 65th year.
The exhibition covers three key stages of his life: the early works of portraiture and recording of the aftermath of Thatcherite Britain; the impact of his experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo; and finally, his therapeutic conversion to Christianity after years of battling with alcoholism and drugs.
Howson studied fine art at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) under the tutelage of head of painting and printmaking, Sandy Moffat, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moffat was responsible for promoting Howson and his contemporaries Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski and Ken Currie – the “New Glasgow Boys” – who all worked in the GSA classic style of figurative art. Each created narrative paintings based on detailed explorations of realistic characters, but often with exaggerated forms.
A Scottish sensibility
An unmistakably Scottish feature of Howson’s work is the undertone of Calvinism with its God-fearing, joyless culture of toil and penitence.
His unique perspective on the world reflects his experiences of living in the east end of Glasgow. Most of his early work portrayed caricatures of rough, masculine men with exaggerated musculature. In the paintings of the marginalised homeless, such as The Heroic Dosser (1987), and others living and working in his neighbourhood, his subjects are imbued with a sense of nobility.
At the heart of his art practice, he explores the extremes of the human condition. He demonstrates empathy, acceptance and respect for worthy subjects, but he has also created works of satire, mockery and derision, attacking the evils of the world.
His artworks are often focused on the dark psyche of the masculine with its capacity to be brutal, violent and destructive, such as Saturday Night at Glencorse (1985). They contain a sense of escalating foreboding and menace. He reserves a particular anger for the inhumanity of the jingoistic far right as can be seen in Psycho Squad (1989) and Patriots (1991).
His work often has dark messages contained within, of impending doom, violence and thuggery, with brandished weapons and pitbull terriers. Howson hates bigotry and sectarianism in all its forms and has sought to use his art to bring all faiths together.
The numerous drumming and dancing characters in his work resonate with the controversial marching season in Glasgow (and Norther Ireland). Protestants affiliated with the unionist and loyalist Orange Order celebrate historical victories over Catholics in Ireland with marching band parades over the summer.
Howson has always opposed fascism and stands against the rise of the far right in Europe, believing it is one of his life’s works to highlight the effects that these beliefs have on people through his art. At a time when Margaret Thatcher was in power, he called out the right-wing extremists and portrayed the dispossessed with dignity.
War and peace
With an obsession around violence and warfare, Howson applied and was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to record the Bosnian civil war in 1993 as the official war artist. He was sent to capture its ugly destructive truth, and encountered death, brutality, annihilation of communities, ethnic cleansing and traumatised refugees, as can be seen in Cleansed and Bosnian Harvest (both 1994), and Barrier Sunset (1995).
For Howson, life is about violence and confrontation, and in his words, encountering it makes him “feel alive”. But the war had a huge impact on Howson’s mental health and his personal relationships were damaged by his experiences.
On his return, after a period of convalescence, he produced 300 pieces of powerful, shocking and controversial works of art. Influenced by Goya, Otto Dix and Paul Nash, these works detailed the atrocities and landscapes of devastation he had witnessed. This cathartic output had a cleansing effect on his psyche, and he believed these artworks saved his artistic life.
In coping with his ongoing drug and alcohol addictions, Howson sought out religion as a refuge in therapy which helped give him new purpose. His more recent work has been set around the exploration of strong mythological, Christian and biblical themes.
He explores various aspects of Christ’s life and suffering, he imagines portraits of the apostles, scenes of the crucifixion, the stations of the cross and conjures images of old testament figures, such as Job (2011) and Abraham.
Themes of death are explored through Greek mythology, set around journeys through the rivers leading to the underworld, such as Phlegethon (2021). There are similarities (Prophecy, 2016) to the dark works of Hieronymus Bosch whose dreamscapes conjured hell and judgement day. Howson claimed in one interview that he aspires to produce works as sublime as those created by renaissance masters Albrecht Dürer and Giovanni Bellini.
Howson’s work is deeply informed by his experience of growing up in Scotland and all he was exposed to and witnessed in Glasgow. It is also characteristic of the painters who came out of the 1980s Scottish art scene, whose styles reflected an ambivalence about postmodernism.
Even though this was post-abstract expressionism and well into the era of conceptual art, many Scottish fine artists of that time, even though most trained at the prestigious GSA, seemed to be stuck in more traditional approaches to portraiture.
Howson’s work has a similar style to other contemporary Scottish artists such as John Byrne, John Bellany and Alasdair Gray in which he paints the human form often in cartoonish and caricaturic style. Many of the Scottish artists of the time painted with a modernist, illustrative style of storytelling.
Howson’s purpose and dedication to his craft and artisanship are evident, but it is his moving display of human suffering and his pursuit of redemption which mark him out as one of the greatest contemporary British artists.
Blane Savage does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.