Artist Profile: Peter Howson

Peter Howson OBE is perhaps the best known of the contemporary Scottish artists showing at the Shadows of the Divine exhibition. A bullied child prodigy, Howson’s earliest paintings were of extreme violence and battles. He rose to fame in the 1980s with his often grotesque paintings of homeless individuals from the Glasgow streets. In 1993 he was sent to Bosnia as an official war reporter; although he did not complete his assignment, he later returned and has produced a number of celebrated paintings and etchings from his time there. At the same time, however, Howson struggled with an alcohol and drug addiction that increasingly alienated him from his family. After reaching a breaking point in 2000, he entered rehab and before long converted to Christianity. Since then he has painted numerous scenes from the Bible, the Stations of the Cross, and scenes from Dante’s Inferno. His commission for Glasgow Cathedral was the subject of a reject BBC documentary, The Madness of Peter Howson.

At New College we are showing Howson’s charcoal drawing Walking on Water (2009). The piece is simple, by Howson’s standards even minimalistic, yet still features his trademark sculptural shapes built up by dense crosshatching. A loosely composed, almost monstrous figure emerges from the background, and appears to be walking on top of a stream; he is framed by the larger, more detailed figure in the foreground. This latter figure points and looks, but not directly at the other. Mouth open and head titled, it is almost as if he is gesturing to some unseen companion or, perhaps, to the viewer to look and see who is coming. Taking a cue from the biblical title, we may read it as Peter gesturing to the other disciples, and by extension to us, to see this spectre walking through wind and over wave. If the scene unfolds as the biblical stories, the moment of fear will soon give way to encounter with Jesus–and to a confession that he is the Son of God.

Howson’s personal website has images and a short biography (link). In 2008 he spoke to the Sunday Times about his continuing problems with rage, and his struggle with Asperger’s syndrome (link). STV has two interviews with Howson available on YouTube, one from the 1980s discussing his then recent rise to fame (link), and another more recent one on his religious conversion (link).

Have you seen the Shadows of the Divine exhibition yet? What did you think of Howson’s drawing? What do you think art like this says to contemporary war, conflict, and violence? Join the conversation in the comments section.

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