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Peter Howson — an “extreme” painter

Peter How­son (b. Lon­don 1958) is one of these painters who are “writ­ing” their art with their life; or — in other words — they con­tin­u­ously pro­voke chal­lenges and arrange “scenog­ra­phy” in order to give their work a rea­son for exis­tence. In that sense How­son occu­pies the oppo­site side to, for exam­ple, Henry Matisse or Joan Miro who lived com­par­a­tively ordi­nary lives of fam­ily men and their paint­ings seemed to emerge, first of all, from their intense inner life. Peter would be one of these artists, with whom Mar­cel Duchamp was likely to be fas­ci­nated. Artists with an amaz­ing per­sonal story and con­tro­ver­sial work. I found myself being fas­ci­nated by that story both as a human­ist and a per­son study­ing art.

Peter How­son met with vio­lence and humil­i­a­tion at a young age being bul­lied by his class­mates. He was small, quiet and “dif­fer­ent”, he wouldn’t play foot­ball dur­ing brakes sim­ply because he pre­ferred to stay inside and draw. Lately, he names his sick­ness of the soul as the Asperger’s Syn­drome. The psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of that early lone­li­ness and bru­tal­ity were to be long-lasting. At 17 he got into Glas­gow School of Art (Peter’s fam­ily moved to Scot­land when he was four and he’s rec­og­nized as a “Scot­tish” artist) but he found him­self fight­ing with bad, non-understanding teaching.

Dis­il­lu­sioned, he quits school after a year and enrolls in the British Army. It’s quite an unusual move for a sen­si­tive, intro­verted boy with the his­tory of bul­ly­ing. He stands mil­i­tary life for nine months and appre­ci­ates the period as being one of the most for­ma­tive in his entire life. Per­son­ally, I admire that choice made just in the right time and prob­a­bly with the instinct that in order to learn how to swim one has to throw him­self into deep water. Peter How­son had con­fronted his fears and per­haps bad mem­o­ries and he did this strug­gling through the hard, an extreme way. That “extreme” trait will develop to be the painter’s alter ego — How­son as we know him now.

Hav­ing fin­ished the art school (thanks to an encour­ag­ing teacher — Sandy Mof­fat) Peter starts yet another fight, this time last­ing through­out his mature life of an artist and man. It’s a bat­tle of wills between Peter How­son — a vic­tim of his own psy­che and Peter How­son — a man of action and adven­ture, a tal­ented painter with a great insight in the human soul.

In his early 20s the painter faces his fas­ci­na­tion with the gym and heroes in A. Schwarzenegger’s type. Soon he admits that because he took things to a ridicu­lous extreme he had became so muscle-bound that he hated the way he looked. Also, his first paint­ing series would be an acute, although slightly car­i­ca­tured depic­tion of body builders, hard men and hooli­gans. At the same time the artist speaks out how much he actu­ally detests the world he depicts: I hate vio­lence. And I believe that every­one, no mat­ter how gen­tle they think they are, has the capac­ity for it within them…

Through mid-1980s his pro­file rose steadily and within rel­a­tively short period of time How­son found him­self being col­lected by Madonna, David Bowie, Bob Geldof and being rejected by the respectable muse­ums at the same time. Ini­tially thrilled by the fame he soon real­izes a trap he and his admir­ers have set up — a trap of gen­er­at­ing works in a one, rec­og­nized style and in a one pop­u­lar the­matic cir­cle (just think about dozens of other artists who would never try to escape from such a com­fort­able trap). He knew he had to make him­self different.

That’s how he threw him­self into another very deep water — he became an offi­cial painter of the war in the for­mer Yugoslavia, so-called Bosn­ian War (19921995). That was cer­tainly the most extreme chal­lenge of the “extreme painter”. First time he went unpre­pared and came back seri­ously sick, the home press labelled him “a cow­ard”. He had returned and demanded an army uni­form and to be treated like a sol­dier. That expe­ri­ence was about to make him a dif­fer­ent man. The war is one of the most bar­baric in the his­tory — a civil butch­ery based on eth­nic grounds with mass frat­ri­ci­dal killings and rapes, tor­tures and muti­la­tions. How­son called it a war of vio­lence and humil­i­a­tion becom­ing him­self a kind of a poignantly expe­ri­enced expert in both. What exactly the painter wit­nessed remains his mys­tery (he rejected the pres­ence of jour­nal­ists at his sec­ond visit) but he admits that he had never been closer to sui­cide and — para­dox­i­cally — never felt more alive.

A series of Howson’s Bosn­ian huge-scaled can­vases caused a big debate in Great Britain and beyond with the major media — The Times, BBC being involved. And it started even before they had their pre­mière at the Peter How­son: Bosnia exhi­bi­tion in the Impe­r­ial War Museum (Lon­don) in 1994. Some of the paint­ings appeared “too explicit” for a pub­lic view (espe­cially the pow­er­ful Croa­t­ian and Mus­lim depict­ing a bru­tal rape), some were ques­tioned on a basis of their his­tor­i­cal value as the painter admit­ted not to wit­ness him­self some of the scenes (but “just” using his imagination).

The paint­ings belong to the most pow­er­ful images of the con­tem­po­rary fig­u­ra­tive art. They depict women being raped, cas­trated men, hanged ani­mals, ragged refugees and above all — anony­mous faces, for­mi­da­ble, unfor­get­table phys­iog­nomies of those who went through hell. These works have the drama, fan­tasy, emo­tional inten­sity and vision­ary qual­ity of W. Blake’s and H. Bosch’s paint­ings. They were born from sin­cer­ity and an authen­tic spir­i­tual pain, from pas­sion and courage, from a sin­ful fas­ci­na­tion by the evil side of the human nature and a heroic strug­gle against it. It has to be said that the con­tem­po­rary art seems to be noth­ing like that…

Recently, Peter How­son makes head­lines over abus­ing drugs and alco­hol. He turned towards reli­gious themes.

In Phaidon’s 20th Cen­tury Art Book his name appears among 499 the most impor­tant artists of the past century.

Here is Howson’s offi­cial web page:Peter How­son

For fur­ther read­ing I do rec­om­mend books:

- Jack­son, A. A Dif­fer­ent Man, 1997

- Heller, R. Peter How­son, 1993





Dear Read­ers,

With David’s per­mis­sion I would like to invite you on my own page I’ve been devel­op­ing through­out the last week — Terra Incog­nita

We agreed on cross-posting (I will pub­lish some of my texts/images on both blogs and David — feel free to post on my site), but I would like also to con­tribute some pieces designed just for this site.

All The Strange Hours will remain a ter­rain of my debut, so it will always be a lit­tle bit spe­cial for me.

Posted in artists.

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14 Responses

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  1. David says

    I had not encoun­tered How­son before. He’s inter­est­ing, although I’d find his fig­u­ra­tive work more com­pelling if he had a bit bet­ter grasp of anatomy. Still, his work has a sort of prim­i­tivist power that’s very attractive.

    Good luck with your new site, and thanks for your con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion here.

  2. Katarzyna says


    Thanks. Howson’s fig­ures have been delib­er­ately deformed to empha­size the mean­ing he wants to con­vey — some­times it’s an ugli­ness and mis­ery of the human con­di­tion depicted with expres­sion­is­tic pas­sion; some­times its the raw, almost ani­mal power of bulky bul­lies — yes they look like a car­i­ca­ture of them­selves but that’s what they are, some­times its a dig­nity and an extreme suf­fer­ing beyond com­pre­hen­sion — again depicted to the extreme, with amaz­ing com­pas­sion… I don’t agree that his fig­u­ra­tive work could be more com­pelling “if he had a bit bet­ter grasp of anatomy”. He isn’t a real­ist painter, a ren­di­tion of per­fectly — built men (in a clas­si­cal mean­ing) is not his aim.

  3. David says


    I get that his fig­ures are delib­er­ate dis­tor­tions and not intended to look “real­is­tic.” I find that anatom­i­cal manip­u­la­tion by artists who know their anatomy is more inter­est­ing and effec­tive than by those who sim­ply put mus­cles and ten­dons in kind of ran­domly, as if to fill up space.

    That may be just me; I find those kinds of dis­tor­tions to be dis­tract­ing rather than evocative.

  4. Katarzyna says


    It’s a kind of an obvi­ous thing to say that your per­sonal pref­er­ences and teach­ing that you got influ­ence the way you read the work by How­son (we all behave like that). Per­son­ally, I don’t find Howson’s fig­ures dis­tract­ing just because he puts one mus­cle not the way he should (in a “real­is­tic” paint­ing) and the other too big/small/ ill shaped or what­ever. He could put three eyes or two heads on his fig­ures — it would be hardly less effec­tive — again — from my point of view. And I don’t believe that he doesn’t know or is not able to draw and to paint a proper, academic-looking man (is it what you mean by con­tra­dict­ing his work to these artists who have a bet­ter grasp of anatomy?) just because he chose to inter­pret human fig­ure in his man­ner. But I think your response is valid and it casts a new light on Howson’s work (new for me) On the other hand, I’m inter­ested in work of those artists you are men­tion­ing about.

  5. incompetent says

    But how ‘extreme’ can he really be with­out a back­wards ball cap, do-rag, and ‘tude?

  6. katarzyna says


    Wel­come back. Could you trans­late your ques­tion for an English-as-a-second-language per­son? Thanks

  7. incompetent says

    I was being irrev­er­ent, actu­ally. If you’re famil­iar with Amer­i­can cul­ture we use the word “extreme” as an adjec­tive for cer­tain lifestyles. Or corn chips.

  8. Katarzyna says

    Thanks. I’m not famil­iar to this extent. But your post teaches me a les­son about the pos­si­ble ambi­gu­ity and flex­i­bil­ity of words which for me could mean pretty straight­for­ward things. It’s impor­tant to know when you are try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate your­self and your inter­pre­ta­tion of the world in the assim­i­lated but not “inher­ited” language.

  9. jeff says

    I like Howson’s work a lot myself. I used to live in Scot­land when he was just start­ing out. Another inter­est­ing painter is Ken Cur­rie who paints very dark works.

    These 2 painters had been an influ­ence on my work many years ago. I hate to say it but since he has found reli­gion his work does not seem to have the edge it had, but if he kept up the life style he had he would be dead now.

  10. Katarzyna says

    Jeff, It’s great to have an almost “wit­ness­ing” voice. It’s a shame you’re not liv­ing in Scot­land any more from this point of view — I would like to hear a “home” opin­ion on Howson’s art.
    I agree on your thought about the painter’s lat­est pref­er­ences — I sup­pose it’s par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to cre­ate con­vinc­ing reli­gious art — in our non-religious age and with all those mas­ter­pieces behind your back. I think How­son would be ok if he had a gen­uine inter­est in religion…But he is only try­ing to con­vince him­self that there is a point to live a decent life (my hum­ble opin­ion), that’s why he seems to lose uncompromising-ness and clar­ity in his work.

  11. jeff says

    No he is born again, he has com­pletely embraced his church and he goes to church. He has stopped drink­ing and his reli­gious art is from his heart.

    He has a form of Asperger’s syn­drome which was not diag­nosed until his daugh­ter was.

    I never met him, but I was in Edin­burgh for the first shows of that group of painters if you want to call them that. Adrian Wiszniewski, Steven Camp­bell and Ken Cur­rie as well as How­son were called the New Glas­gow Boys.

    Camp­bell died recently at age 54, way to young.

    The only thing in com­mon was that they all went to Glas­gow school of art around the same time and stud­ied with Sandy Moffat.

  12. jeff says

    I for­got Stephen Con­roy who is also a very good painter. He shows at Marl­bor­ough gallery in Lon­don you should check him out and Camp­bell is(was) a very inter­est­ing painter, the most orig­i­nal of that period.

  13. Mitch says

    Thanks for the help folks!!!

  14. Paul says

    Hi all. I col­lect Howson‘s work and can assure you that he can cer­taily paint the facial and bod­ily fea­tures to a very high qual­ity when needed, as in the apos­tle works for example.

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