Sunday, 28 November 2010

'The Madness of Peter Howson'

I found ‘The Madness Of Peter Howson’ on BBC Four the other night totally compelling viewing. It was a fascinating documentary that followed the famous Scottish artist as he struggled to complete an important commission for the Catholic church in Glasgow, depicting the martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvy.

He talked candidly on screen about his struggles with drink and drug addiction, money, Asperger’s Syndrome, and the devastating effect these things had had on his obviously fragile mental health. In recent years he has sobered up and become a born again Christian, yet the incredible compulsive drive and passion he demonstrated to make his dense, knotty, bold, and often eccentric figurative paintings just leaped off the screen. There was something of a caged, wounded animal about him as he padded restlessly about his home and studio. He even described himself as ‘a complete nutter’ at one point. I found myself thinking there was something pathetic about him, but also almost heroic. I was very moved, and couldn’t help but come away with a re-found admiration for this artist that I had previously lost.

Peter Howson 'The Heroic Dosser', 1987

I used to be a big fan of Howson’s art, particularly as a student. I learned so much about handling big scale figurative compositions from looking at his expressive paintings. They had a directness in their handling and energy I really admired, and gave me a lot of confidence in trying similar things in my own big paintings. I also loved their subject matter with their depictions of the Scottish working class, particularly the macho male world of Glasgow; a world of illegal boxing clubs and violent bars that Howson frequented. It was a far cry from the sedate and worthy depictions of the English working class to be found in Coldstream and Gore etc. I was really excited by his work as I was trying to attempt similar things about my own working class experience. Howson’s paintings were often shocking and brutal, and really unfashionable south of the border, which is never a bad thing and always appealed to me. I remember finally visiting the Gallowgate area of Glasgow where Howson had his studio, thinking it can’t be that bad. But it was. It was like a theatre of the world. It made me think Howson didn’t go far enough in his art.

But as time went on the work seemed to get more and more horribly mannered and repetitive. The brutish figures became much more parodies of their former selves and almost Marvel-like in their depictions of his muscle-bound anti-heroes. And when Jesus appeared on the streets of Glasgow, well….I was out of there. He seemed unable to move on, almost as if it was the money not the art that motivated him.

Peter Howson, 'The Martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvy', 2010

And I think there still is that side to the paintings he makes now. I really don’t like the way he depicts the figure with the huge distortions he makes to twisted limbs, swollen feet and monstrous hands. But the repetition, the sense that he just makes the same painting over and over again, I felt I did get closer to understanding through the film. His compulsive nature just drove him on and on, never satisfied, the figures a cipher for his troubled and turbulent emotional self, not really about Glasgow’s hard men anymore. They seemed more like the demons in his mind. It was very affecting, and made the work very powerful. He seemed lost in this chaotic world he had made. A brilliant documentary.

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