The Night of the Souls
Cork Street Gallery,
Peter Howson is an artist of disarming visual honesty. His work, which at different stages in his career has celebrated allegory and allegorised celebrity, depicting the landscapes of modern war and internal struggle with a Goyaesque brilliance, is testament to an obsessive occupation with the dark recesses of existence, a drive that he has channelled, in recent years, into a robust faith and spiritualism.
Howson is a compelling storyteller, adept at both casting a light on the disenfranchised peripheries and embodying the universal Everyman. The new works shown here – an arresting group of portraits inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy – make flesh the artist’s journey out of alcoholism, drug addiction and compulsive behaviour and his ongoing search for redemption. Like Dante, whose portrait here strikingly mirrors the artist’s own, Howson’s intimate experience of the maverick and excessive, sinful and strange (whether pictured as a teeming urban underbelly or an epic allegorical underworld) inform and animate his artistic and existential campaign.
Each of the three parts of Dante’s Commedia conclude with the word ‘stelle’, or stars, a cosmic inflection that invests the poem with hope and illuminates the protagonist’s path to spiritual enlightenment. Many of the characters that Howson depicts – the indolent Belaqua, held captive in Ante-Purgatory for the sin of sloth, flesh dragging from exaggerated jowls, shoulders sinking into a limp ellipse; Filipo Argenti, among the wrathful in the river Styx, fevered expression and bestial stare prophesying his violent end; battle worn excommunicate Manfred, handsome face tattooed into abstraction by a dense hatching of scars – are picked out in the eerie glow of a lone star. Howson distils the glimmer of celestial promise contained in this symbol in the eyes of ‘Lucia’; piercing pools of vivid blue that provide the beacons for Dante’s spiritual growth and ascent. St Lucy is a figure of illuminating grace, mercy and justice, who – along with Dante’s worldly love Beatrice – inspires Virgil to come to his rescue. Similarly, Howson has described his daughter Lucie, who suffers from epilepsy and Asperger’s Syndrome, as his ‘guardian angel’, reconciling the trauma of her condition by seeing it as a faith test. He credits Lucie for saving him from the spiral of destructive hedonism that preceded his conversion to Christianity in 2000, thus casting her in the same vital role as her divine namesake.
The characters that form this new series – a compelling menagerie that appear to dramatise the manifold dimensions of Howson’s own psyche as effectively as they illustrate the players in Dante’s verse – gather around a colossal and awe-inspiring painting of Jesus in the pose of crucifixion. Sulphuric plumes of vivid red engulf his contorted body and sinewy limbs, framing his waxen figure in an encroaching inferno. While the painting appears to invoke violence and suffering on a biblical scale, by omitting the cross from the depiction, Howson introduces the possibility that it is, in fact, an audacious resurrection that we are witnessing. This essential ambiguity – the prospect of hope in the midst of torment and desolation – is the star that shines brightly over these works, signalling the lucid dawn at the end of Howson’s dark night of the soul.