As in the top picture, Pergamum, Peter Howson’s world is a dark, apocalyptic one populated with grotesque low-lifes, disfigured and violent, decadent and despairing. Dominating are colossus-like males, with over-sized muscles and bulging eyes, machismo in the extreme. They exist beneath crumbling buildings in a nightmare vision recalling the works of Hogarth, Bosch, Dürer, Breughel the Elder, Dix, Beckmann and Goya.
This familiar theme in the work of the Scottish artist, once dubbed one of the New Glasgow Boys when he emerged from the Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s, continues with new work on show at the Flowers Gallery entitled Acta Est Fabula. This translates as “The Play is Over” which were apparently the last words of Emperor Augustus and the phrase used to announce the ending of a play in Roman theatre. The works are mostly oil on large canvases, some more than two metres high.
In Luxuria, above, an ironic title if ever I saw one, a sewage pipe empties its content on to a seething mass of derelict humanity with typical Howson motifs that include the underpass, ruins, drummers, humans with pig heads and writhing limbs. These are noisy and disturbing scenes set beneath a melodramatic sky and redolent of the decadence of contemporary society while addressing the universal experience of human suffering.
Raw emotion, particularly anger, has been a hallmark of Howson’s work for decades. Bullied at school for being “different”, he took to spending six hours a day bodybuilding at the Health and Strength Club in his hometown of Ayr. In the meantime, he would draw and paint the edgy and threatening dispossessed figures populating the darker reaches of Glasgow. He endured a short stint in the army where he both witnessed and experienced bullying and humiliation. He became an alcoholic with all that that entails with regard to his personal relationships, yet he managed to continue to produce art of high quality. You can find his work in the Met and MOMA in New York, the Tate and the V & A in London as well as in the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh to name but few.
Entzauberung (Disenchantment) is a disturbing and hateful image of ultra-patriotic football hooligans draped in the union flag while the drum of conflict beats loud. It’s a distillation of symbols that forms a kind of circular motif. You’ve got the white cliffs of Dover on the left, while on the right there’s a sign perhaps of religious redemption.
The image serves as a warning of the dangers of the far-right movement in the UK particularly and in the world generally that threatens liberal democracy and the cherished liberties and values that have been established over many decades.
Another factor lies behind the brutal imagery of Howson’s work. In 1993, he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to cover the Bosnian war as an official war artist. In two visits, he witnessed terrible atrocities and the sometimes harrowing nature of combat for which he was ill-prepared. The result was a break-down and subsequent depression that fuelled his drink problem. Nevertheless, his painting continued though this time his pictures were borne of experience rather than imagination. At his subsequent successful exhibition at the IWM, one painting Croatian and Muslim was omitted on the flimsy grounds that the brutal rape it depicted was not witnessed directly. The work was bought by David Bowie.
Anak (above) has an element of redemption about it represented by the moonlight and the softer expression on the subject’s face as he sits among the ruins, the carnage and the crumbling edifice of his life. It resembles an earlier work The Third Step in which the same colossus figure looks towards a church, a reference to his own drug and alcohol rehab and his turning to Christianity.
In addition to the large oil paintings, Peter Howson has also included a number of smaller ink and pastel works in the exhibition.
One that particularly caught my eye was Attercoppe (above) a sensitively drawn ink portrait of a downtrodden figure. Howson’s works are not for the faint of heart but they come from the heart and shine a light on the darker side of the human psyche.
Acta Est Fabula is showing at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP until 22 December 2018.
All images © Peter Howson, courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York.