‘ A different man’ werd hij in een monografie van Robert Heller genoemd, Peter Howson, Schot, jaartal 1958, opgegroeid in Glasgow in de 1960-er jaren, Glasgow School of art 1975-1979.
Benoemd tot ‘official British war artist for Bosnia door het Imperial War Museum in 1993, asperger syndrome, suffered with depression and addiction for much of his life.
Van arme luis tot schatrijke zestiger, aangetrokken door bijbelse en christelijke verhalen en symbolen naast een meer dan gewone belangstelling voor geweld en horror.
A different man.
In ‘studio international’ vond ik uit 2013 een interview van Emily Spicer met Peter Howson, temidden van zijn werken op een tentoonstelling in de Flowers Gallery.
Met enkele fragmenten van dit gesprek en met de indringende film onderaan die vrienden van hem maakten toen hij aan een grote opdracht voor een kerk werkte, krijg je een mogelijk inzicht in het differente van deze kunstenaar.
I was keen to ask about one painting in particular, The First Step, arguably one of the most striking in the exhibition. A hunched man, lined, scarred and bent double, carries an animated band of figures on his back through a gloomy landscape of broken glass. One of his unruly passengers goads him on by tearing his thigh with a giant hook. At the front of this group is a young blond girl. “That’s my daughter,” Howson tells me. “My daughter is almost always in my work. I think she’s always kind of leading me, pointing to where I should go. It’s autobiographical. I suppose it’s a bit melodramatic, but that’s the way I feel.”
While working on The First Step in 2000, the artist was battling with addiction: “I was drinking a lot and taking a lot of drugs at that point. I’d been 25 years on drugs and drink, so that was when I first got better really, I suppose, and I had this incredible spiritual experience in the hospital. I stopped drinking and stopped drug-taking, got myself better and was really happy for a few years – three years I think it was – and then I just suddenly went downhill again. So it’s been up and down all the time; being ill, being well, being hyper, being depressed. I can’t seem to get this level track really.”
ES: You’ve always been interested in conflict and battles and the darker side of things.
PH: I think it’s just the way I’m drawn to things like that, drawn to danger. I don’t know, it’s weird; I can’t really explain it. Ever since I was four I’ve been doing battle scenes and, even though Bosnia was hellish, I really enjoyed it, that’s the weird thing. I really enjoyed being there.
ES: Did Bosnia change your view of conflict? Did you have a slightly glamorised idea of what war was like?
PH: No, I didn’t have any illusions as to what war was like because I’d lived such a violent life before that. Obviously, I hadn’t experienced real warfare before. Bosnia was definitely a shock, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But I suppose it had a knock-on effect.
ES: Has painting helped you through the darker times, or is art a source of anxiety in itself?
PH: It’s therapeutic. It’s what I like best. I love being in the studio. I love working. It’s a new experience for me to get back into it. I haven’t been in the studio working hard for a long, long time. I’ve been kneeling on a hospital floor drawing, with the nurses telling me to go back to bed. I was heavily drugged as well. They drugged me up in hospital, so it was one thing after another. I just couldn’t function.
ES: I notice there are a couple of paintings in this exhibition, done this year, that seem different; there’s a change in your work. I’m thinking especially of The Bear.
PH: Well the boxer is just an old subject. They call me the bear because I’m strong and I’m bad.
ES: Looking at that painting, it seems that, although the boxer appears tough, there’s a kindness in his eyes. Even though he has just taken a swing, there is a gentleness about the face.
PH: Well, it’s kind of the way I feel, maybe. I’m getting my strength back now. I can feel my strength coming back. I used to be really fit. I used to run lots of marathons and be very fit and then I started the drugs and the drink and all that, and then I started getting really unfit, but this is me back again. I feel like the bear again. I feel strong again.
ES: And it seems to be a hopeful picture. The sky is blue and there’s a tinge of sunlight in the clouds. It’s uplifting.
PH: It’s OK. I really can’t stand the painting myself, but everyone else seems to like it. [Laughs.] I find it embarrassing. It’s OK, people like it. I want to get better and better and better, and just really work away. The one I like is Alpha & Omega. I don’t know if many people like that, but I like it, you see. That’s the stuff I want to do.
ES: Can I ask what the title means?
PH: Well, when Jesus appeared to St John the divine on Patmos, he said: “I am the alpha and the omega; the first and the last.” He said, write down what I’m going to tell you now, and that was the Book of Revelation. Jesus appeared resurrected, but it frightened John so much he just about died. He fell on his face, but he wrote down the book. He wrote it all down and it means a lot to me for my faith. I’m obsessed by the face of Jesus and the resurrection.
ES: So you don’t need someone in front of you to do that?
PH: No, I never use people. I do every now and then use a life model if I need to practise something, but not very often. I don’t really enjoy it. I just enjoy using my imagination. I suppose my hero is William Blake because he really hated academic art. He wanted to use the imagination totally and that’s what I want to do. The thing is, he could only do small things and I can do great big canvases and I love doing them. I love cramming figures into them and I love the whole figure and the human face. To me, there’s nothing ugly in the physical world; it’s always spiritual things that are ugly for me. So the ugliest person for me would be beautiful. I love beauty, but I also see beauty in ugliness, even in the most tragic of places, of situations. You can get physical beauty, even in the worst of things, but not spiritual beauty. So obviously the rape scene is a terrible subject, but the actual painting – and this is the weird thing about art – can turn something horrible into something powerful and moving, and it changes people’s lives and there is a kind of beauty about it as well. So rape is not beauty, it’s evil, but the actual painting itself moves someone to want to buy it and there is a kind of beauty in the paint and the way it’s used. It’s very strange; it’s almost like an irony, a kind of terrible, awful beauty about things. Look at the subject matter of Bosch – they’re awful subjects of hell and yet they’re beautiful. To me, they look beautiful.
ES: Is it true that you’re not a fan of Lucian Freud?
PH: No, I’m not really, no. Definitely not. I don’t know why, probably because it’s just academic for me, it’s just people and it’s not really imagination. It’s very cold and unemotional and slightly falsely bohemian and all that kind of stuff. You’re not a relation of Freud, are you?
PH: Thank goodness for that. I find him quite an interesting person. But he couldn’t paint anything he didn’t see. I suppose my whole philosophy is based on the Trinity theory, which relates to everything in life. For painting, it’s like three circles and in the middle is the main part. The first circle is God, which is the idea; the second circle is Jesus Christ, which is the technique; and the third circle is the Holy Spirit, which is the message. You have to balance out these things in your painting, so unless they’re all balanced, you don’t get a good painting. So you can actually tell what’s a good painting and what’s not. It’s not to do with whether or not you like it: you might like it, you might not. I like a lot of bad art as well, but I know that if it’s not good, it’s not good. I don’t like conceptual art because you can’t tell whether it’s good or bad. That’s what I try to get into my painting. I try to get the idea, and the technique has to be great, and the composition and everything, and the message. You have to convey the message. If a painting or a piece of work doesn’t convey an instant message, or even a hidden message that comes out at some point, it doesn’t mean anything
ES: It strikes me that you must be an incredibly resilient person to have come so far, given the challenges you have faced.
PH: I’m a survivor, I suppose. I had nothing at all in 1984, nothing. I didn’t have a penny. I was homeless for a year in Glasgow – I lived on the streets – and then suddenly I met this woman and she took me home and said: “Look, why don’t you just start drawing again.” So I started drawing and about a year later everything changed, the whole thing blew up and it was all about money coming in and fame and whatever, and then it all went wrong again. Theoretically, I shouldn’t be here because I’ve nearly died so many times, either with overdoses or with fights or violence or whatever, but I’m still here. There must be a reason for it.
This film follows Peter over two difficult years, a journey that took him to the brink of bankruptcy, and also to the edge of his sanity. Productie van BBC Two Art Works Scotland. (uitgezonden 2011 op BBC Four )