Harrowing of Hell
In Peter Howson’s 2008 exhibition, Harrowing of Hell, he provides audiences with not only a visual representation of this biblical motif but an insight into the mind of the artist and perhaps a new way of defining what “Hell” means in modern society.
Within this exhibition, comprising of four major oil paintings and a large body of accompanying gessoed sketches, there is a suggestion that Peter has presented audiences with two separate definitions of ‘Hell’. The first ‘type’ of Hell in this exhibition is that which may be viewed in the show’s namesake ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ (2007) in which he presents a barbaric and frenetic landscape (surely, a homage to the great paintings of Holman Hunt by whom Peter is inspired); the great crowd scenes and dark palette employed by Peter characterise the work in a way which inspires a sense of awe from the sheer complexity of the composition. In contrast, there are works which display a more prudent sense of solemnity, and appear to refer to the type of Hell to which Peter himself is most familiar- the internal struggle with the self.
These works are both personal and evocative. Peter himself may be viewed behind the eyes of the characters in these works; reflecting on his struggle to cope with his Asperger’s syndrome and the ill health of his beloved daughter Lucie (whose condition Peter believes may have been brought by God to test his strength). Also present, is a reminder of Peter’s well-documented battle with drink, drugs (amongst other ‘temptations’) and his reliance on faith to keep him clear on what is right and what is wrong (…and what to do when what is wrong is that which one desires most).
Therein, this body of work, in all its technical splendor, may be seen as a visual exploration by Peter into Christianity and the human condition. Most prudently, it underlines the way in which his art has always sought to reflect upon his own life and whatever he has experienced has in some way been documented therein. The Harrowing of Hell outlines the salvation Peter has sought in Christianity and the word of God as he strives to admonish his own demons and in doing so, escape from Hell, both metaphorically and otherwise.