Bipolar Paintings by Peter Howson, The Scottish Bosch

For Hieronymus Bosch, “only individual abnormalities, excessive individuality, caricature have any meaning” writes Max Friedländer. As a psychologist Bosch is one-sided to the point of monomania. The very idea of the Passion of Christ evokes in his mind an orgy of mockery and devilish spite and he cannot invent enough hideous monstrosities to pour down hatred and contempt on the adversaries of Our Lord, whereas the divine suffering seems vague or even ambiguous.”(1)

It is the same for Peter Howson, also a religious painter of suffering, but he does not have to invent his hideous human monstrosities: he finds them on the streets of Glasgow. Particularly in Gallowgate, “where all the down-and-outs are in Glasgow, and the prostitutes and drug addicts,”with whom Howson identifies, having once been a drug addict himself, as he acknowledges. He lives and works in Gallowgate, appropriately named, for “bad things happen there,””drunken howls and noises in the streets,”which Howson can appreciate, having once been an alcoholic, as he also remarks. The people there may be “scum,”and sometimes violent — “underclass hooligans”– but they’re “real in comparison to the people who generally hang about the art world,”and, more importantly, they are “nearer to salvation than the suburban Middle Class.”They were “desperate” for it without knowing that they were. Bosch was also a “moralist,”as Charles Cuttler reminds us, using “fantasy. . . in the furtherance of his moral narrative.”His paintings were “moral sermons that constantly reiterate man’s folly and its inevitable consequence of punishment in Hell.(2) So it is with Howson, whose “Hades Series”of four paintings from 2011 makes the same point. Howson had painted the wretched of the earth in his Blind Leading the Blind Series (1991), indebted to Pieter Bruegel’s painting of the same theme — but Howson’s figures have eyes that see the world clearly however blind they are to themselves, and more gruesome and troubled if also more truculent and hopeless faces, as The Bridge to Nowhere makes clear, and are more expressionistically painted, as Silent Scream shows — but he truly came into his religious and moralistic own in his Ecce Homo Series and Stations of the Cross Series (2002-03).

He had found religion, if not exactly salvation: Howson’s Christ is a victim not a redeemer. It is not the resurrected, transfigured, everlasting Christ, but the mortal, suffering, miserable Man of Sorrows, as a 2004 drawing declares, imprisoned, vilified, his body abused, tortured, mortified and finally crucified by the rabble — the very people he has come to save — as Crucified Figure and Mob (2002) makes very clear. It was not any old religion that Howson found, but the religion of his native Scotland, with its rugged terrain and punitive weather. When I was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow I was told that you can experience all four seasons in one day in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh, where violent storms would suddenly come in from the Atlantic, and where Howson’s Christ series made its first stormy appearance under the auspices of the Scottish Bible Society, with its sternly moralistic determination to spread “The Word for the world.”

Howson’s Christ is a street person who was betrayed by the crowds in the street. He was an Outcast(2011) who was destroyed by other outcasts. These profoundly anti-social works, a species of imitatio Christi, remind one of similar works made by Dürer — one of Howson’s artist-heroes, along with Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, suggesting that, like them, Howson carries the maniera tedesca to a morbid extreme — if an expressionistic Dürer. But then there is an expressionistic flair to Durer’s Apocalypse Series — they also condemn, punish and damn society as a whole — and later Large and Small Passion Series. Howson’s works have the same incisive intensity, suggesting strong passion under precarious control. Howson’s own apocalyptic imagery — so he has characterized his work — follows their lead, as he has acknowledged. When he was young he “thought the world was going to end,”and became “caught up in painting apocalyptic scenes, look[ing] at Dürer and Bosch,”whose technique as well as imagery inspired him. And like Dürer, Howson is a master portraitist — a great psychological portraitist, as his Gallow Guest House portraits show.

“I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome,” Howson says, “a form of autism which means that social interaction is quite difficult, you have to learn it.”His Hades Series,Spirit of the Age, City of Destruction, and Far North(all 2011), suggest that he hasn’t done so: he’s obsessed with the “bad social interaction”between Christ and the crowd, evident in the violence with which they treat him (and each other).

For Howson the city is a violent, chaotic, oppressively crowded yet lonely, alien place — what the behavioural psychologists call a behavioural sink, where people are in such close proximity that they sometimes crazily act out to make space for themselves, act out what Thoreau called their “quiet desperation”or Winnicott described as the feeling of the futility and unreality of it all that accompanies annihilative anxiety, going dead on the inside, where they are surrounded by strangers and never quite at ease with others and themselves — where people often self-destruct. Drugs and drink are the preferred way of doing so. Howson’s world is incurably mad and disastrous.

When I recently met with Howson in New York he told me that he had just come out of the mental hospital, where he had been treated for clinical depression. I suggested that he was bipolar, on the evidence of his works — they seemed to encode what Winnicott called the “manic defense”against the “death inside.”He agreed; his doctors said the same thing. He was treated with the anti-depressant Lorazepam. It’s the “secret”of his paintings. The boat which Charon ferries across the river Lethe in Hades I is cryptically named the “Eam Loraz,”a scrambled version of “Lorazapam,”as Howson acknowledges.

The painting O Land Zapene (2012) also scrambles the name of the drug, in what seems a futile attempt at irony, for that work, however manically dynamic pictures the same depressing, imprisoning crowd as the Hades pictures. Along with Back Fire and Arrival (also 2012), it is the most powerfully painterly, brashly abstract work in the exhibition. Howson told me that they were new “experiments,”but their compulsive energy is already evident in the expressionist Crucified Man and Mob. Howson is a narrative painter, but he has only one narrative to tell, and he tells it with great passion.

Commenting on what he calls “Britart”(no doubt to distinguish his “Scotart”from it), he notes that “Lucian Freud is still just an academic painter who doesn’t actually have imagination. Artists have to have imagination. Lucian Freud can’t paint anything he doesn’t see in front of him. . . when you see his portraits of people, there’s a kind of emptiness, there’s no heart there.”I don’t think there’s one Britart artist that is any good at all. I think they’re con men actually. Clever people like Charles Saatchi and Jay Jopling brought on Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. . . . The whole meaning of art has gone because of the lack of an absolute: what’s good and what’s bad?. . . If you look back in 50 years on this period, people will see it as a bad one for art. . . the whole Britart thing is based on apathy, it’s based on intellectual chatterings.”
But then it’s been a good period for Howson, who has restored Northern painting to credibility by renewing its religiosity, and reminding us that painting continues to be the one cultural space in which it is still possible for “true emotions to come out.”Emotional realism is never out of fashion, however unfashionable in some quarters of the art world, where, as Howson says, “going to the best parties and being seen in the Press in the right places”are regarded as more important than art.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


(1) Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting: From Van Eyck to Bruegel (London: Phaidon, 1965), 60, 58

(2) Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting: From Pucelle to Bruegel (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1968), 198

(3) All the quotations from Howson are taken from his interview with Steven Berkoff, Peter Howson (London: Flowers East, 2005; exhibition catalogue), 5-13