AMID THE USUAL eclectic lower Manhattan gallery offerings of Swiss cow-decorated milk bottles, comic-book art of the Oism faith, and an installation of banners with bankrupt bank logos, the opening of the exhibition Redemption at Flowers in Chelsea last spring, featuring four huge oil paintings of Christ’s death and resurrection by Scottish artist Peter Howson, qualified as a major countercultural event. As guests circulated in the minimalist white exhibition space, sipping wine and sparkling water, the first-night small talk did not flow so freely. It was hard to take your eyes from the quartet of astonishingly detailed eight-foot canvases of Howson’s new Hades series. In every one, the figure of Christ appeared in the midst of a writhing mass of hellish human forms. You might describe the visual experience as “the shock of the old.”
Howson is a refreshing oddity in twenty-first-century culture: a committed Christian who is not embarrassed to talk about his faith or make “religious art.” Once famed for his exaggeratedly muscled lowlife figures in apocalyptic cityscapes and brutal war scenes of rape and mutilation, Howson made headlines when he went public with the story of his religious conversion while undergoing treatment for alcohol and drug abuse in 2000. The artist was already well established as a leading exponent of contemporary British figurative painting, with works in the collections of major national museums and of glitterati art-lovers like David Bowie and Madonna. The London art scene could hardly ignore his new religious pieces, especially after Howson was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2009. But his amazing outpouring of Christ images over the past decade continues to baffle, bother, and bemuse art critics, museum curators, and many admirers.
In the age of cool, when we study art with ironic detachment and make up our own stories about what we see, Howson insists that the meaning of his passion-filled paintings can be found in the two-millennia-old Christian tradition, placing himself far closer on the timeline of western art to Hieronymus Bosch than to Joseph Beuys. Art critics reviewing the Redemption show recognized the artist’s typical gallery of grotesques in the distorted human forms who people the Hades canvases. They failed to see what was so redemptive about the near naked Christ at the center of these gatherings of ghouls, looking, as one reviewer observed, like “a street person who was betrayed by the crowds in the street.” David Cohen wrote that Howson the convert, in pictorial terms, “remains happiest in Hell,” noting, “he is a painter who takes such relish in the underbelly of humanity, dealing out cruel satire, that one wonders how he could paint salvation or bliss.”
Secular pundits can be excused for missing the point of Howson’s Hades cycle. Even churchgoers who regularly recite the Apostles Creed fail to grasp the full theological import of the refrain that after Christ was crucified, died, and buried, “he descended into hell.” The fact is, this post-Crucifixion event, known as the Harrowing of Hell, serves as the central Resurrection motif in Eastern Orthodox iconography. It would be no exaggeration to say it has also become the defining narrative of Howson’s life, faith, and art. The very idea that God incarnate willingly entered into the domain of the dead to bring liberation to its captives out of love for humanity resonates for the Scottish artist. Howson has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism characterized by problems with social interaction. He once found salvation in a hellish moment in his life and hopes for redemption in whatever troubles the future may bring.
Howson’s work challenges the modernist truism that art objects should speak for themselves. Remove this artist from his pictures and rich layers of meaning are lost. He has painted numerous self-portraits at various stages of his life, including the curious 1995 double image in two-thirds and full profile, Jekyll and Hyde. His personal preoccupations certainly provided the leitmotif of the Flowers show. The wanderer and the girl who guides him in the oil painting City of Destruction (2011) are portraits of Howson and his daughter, Lucie, who also suffers from autism. She reappears as the stooped blonde turning toward Christ in all four of the Hades paintings. In Hades I, the name on the boat ferrying the dead across Acheron, the mythological river of pain, is Pam Loraz, a partial anagram of lorazepam, a drug used to treat anxiety disorders in recovering alcoholics. The self-references go on and on. Biographer Robert Heller contends that “the autobiographical principle has been the unifying force of virtually all Howson’s art.”
Born in West London in 1958, Howson grew up in Scotland and considers Glasgow to be his home. He remembers locking himself in his room as a child, fearful of meeting people or even answering the telephone: the first symptoms of the relational disorder which has troubled him all his life. Art was his safe haven, and he made sketches by the hundreds—not your typical childish stick-figures but highly finished tableaux. The young Howson was fascinated with battle scenes in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. His reading of the Book of Revelation inspired apocalyptic images of human calamity and supernatural disaster. When his grandmother gave him a set of oil paints, one of his first pictures showed Christ on the cross in a bright red loincloth, outlined against a swirling black background. Howson was already dwelling on the dark side, looking for light.
The reclusive, artistically minded boy was a prime target for bullying when he entered elementary school. His childhood experiences of harassment and humiliation left emotional scars and explain the adult Howson’s obsession with aggression and victimization as well as his repulsion-fascination with military life and its officially sanctioned forms of brutality. After a faltering start at the Glasgow School of Art in the mid-1970s, he decided on impulse to drop out and enlist in the Army. Howson witnessed bullying in the barracks unlike anything he had known on the playground. He managed to get out after nine months and followed a circuitous route back to art school. For a time, he was fixated on body-building, pumping iron during the day in a gym, flexing his muscles after dark as a barroom bouncer.
Howson fared much better the second time at the Glasgow School of Art. His tutor, Sandy Moffat, was impressed by his rough sketches of army life and encouraged him to work out of his troubled inner spaces. As one of the New Glasgow Boys, a group of figurative artists that formed around Moffat in the 1980s, Howson garnered critical plaudits for his larger-than-life scenes of battered boxers, floozy streetwalkers, and football hooligans set in an urban wasteland symbolic of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain—while his high-profile bad-boy antics were often the subject of tabloid headlines. He was riding high from major art sales, consuming drugs and alcohol in large quantities, ending one marriage and entering into another, when he decided to accept the position of official war artist in the Bosnian Conflict for the Imperial War Museum in London in 1993.
Howson believes he was suffering at the time from “a sickness of the soul” and hoped the commission would give his life and art a new direction. Instead, he encountered unspeakable violence and victimization, and his Bosnian ordeal turned into another media event. The first time Howson saw spattered blood and brains, BBC cameras recorded the scene for a documentary. The artist returned home early with dysentery to catcalls from the tabloid press. Before the year was out, he was back in the Balkans, embedded with British peacekeeping soldiers. After his art supplies were stolen, Howson was forced to make quick sketches, mostly of faces, using candle wax and boot polish. This unusual mixed media gave a new fluency to his drawing. Howson’s stint in Bosnia ruined his second marriage but resulted in over three hundred of his most powerful art pieces.
The inner restlessness that drove Howson into the Balkan adventure grew worse as he entered the new millennium. One day when he was supposed to be minding Lucie, he was so strung out on drugs and alcohol that he failed to notice she had gathered her things, walked out of the house, and wandered alone into a seedy Glasgow park. Howson finally recognized he had reached rock bottom and entered the addiction treatment center at Castle Craig Hospital in the Scottish Borders. He was following the twelve-step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous when he sensed the presence of Christ in his room one night, telling him he was loved and would be cured. Howson had the same experience every night for the next three months. Redemption had come to him in his private hell: the harrowing of Peter Howson.
Howson’s work divides into BC and AD periods. The first major piece to come out of his conversion experience was the 2001 oil painting The Third Step, a reference to the stage in AA when addicts make a decision “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” [see Plate 1]. Howson had been to the graveyard before in Warriors of the Kirk (1996) and Hellicats (1996), painting prostitutes cavorting by night among tombstones. Now, dark clouds theatrically open to illuminate the crucifix on a nearby church tower. The burial ground becomes holy ground. A battle-scarred veteran from the artist’s urban wars drags himself into the zone of brightness like a contemporary Lazarus come forth from a pitted, concrete sepulcher. As Howson explained at the time: “I’m still doing dark subjects with a lot of hope in them.”
Journalists who had found the artist’s every public misstep a ready source for newspaper copy greeted his conversion to Christianity with sardonic headlines like “Brush with God” and “Howson Sees the Light.” In the 2003 Sunday Times interview titled “You May Not Like It, but I’m a Christian,” the artist responded: “It is ironic that people are more comfortable with me discussing the alcoholism and drug abuse that ruined my marriage, made my daughter’s life a living hell, and threatened to destroy my career as an artist than they are hearing about my Christian faith.” Christ had come to Howson’s rescue like the gleaming white figure in The Tempest (2005), saving the disciples from surging waves on the Sea of Galilee [see front cover]. His relationship with the British mass media had never been an easy one. Now, the tabloids were watching to see if the born-again artist would fall from grace.
In 2008, the Roman Catholic Church commissioned the Protestant Howson to create what was hailed as “the largest crowd scene ever painted in Scotland.” This monster canvas with over six hundred figures, measuring 27 by 10 feet in size, was going to depict the martyrdom of John Ogilvie, Scotland’s only saint from the post-Reformation period, and would hang in the newly renovated Metropolitan Cathedral Church of Saint Andrew in Glasgow. Financing was to come through a complicated scheme, in which Howson would paint ten smaller canvases whose sale would cover the cost of the Ogilvie painting. It was a dubious plan from day one and pushed the artist to the edge of financial ruin and into mental breakdown. He got rid of his manager (who was under investigation by the Scottish police), had himself declared legally incompetent, and now has two court-appointed guardians to look after his affairs.
As the project dragged on over two years, the massive, multi-figured work shrank to one fifth its intended size, ending up as a portrait of the saint standing alone on the gallows. A BBC film crew chronicled the whole saga for the 2010 television documentary The Madness of Peter Howson. In one memorable scene, the artist loads his brush with black paint and blots out nine months’ work in a matter of minutes. Howson had to be hospitalized from the strain and found stability and a return of creative energy painting the Hades canvases for the aptly named Redemption show. Speaking to me before the opening reception at Flowers, Howson said that at the deepest point of his bout with depression he was still aware of the presence of Christ. A harrowing experience, again.
The Peter Howson I met was far from mad. He knows an impressive amount of theology and religious art history. In discussing Crucifixion imagery, he brought up George MacDonald’s rebuttal in Unspoken Sermons of Saint Anselm’s view of substitutionary atonement, moving on to a discussion of predestination in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He spoke with admiration of the mocking of Christ motif in the northern European paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald, Hans Holbein, and Dieric Bouts. One thing does make Howson mad: Britart and YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. He categorizes installations with animals in formaldehyde, body fluids, and unmade beds as “emperor’s new clothes art” and scoffs at galleries marketing used teabags as worthy aesthetic objects.
For Howson, art making is drawing, drawing, and more drawing. He gets up early in the morning, when all is quiet on the streets outside his Glasgow apartment, makes himself a cup of coffee, and begins sketching, while listening to Bach cantatas. He usually starts with the image of Christ, turning his daily drawing exercise into an act of spiritual discipline and devotion. Howson approaches painting as a draftsman, using a rag to sketch out his subject on the reddish-brown ground of his canvas before applying color by brush, wet on wet. He is a prolific, workaholic art maker who can complete a painting in several hours. He has produced literally thousands of oil paintings, ink sketches, monotypes, etchings, lithographs, and charcoal, pastel, and mixed-media drawings over the past thirty years. It is hard to keep count of Howson’s work, since he has been all too generous in giving pieces away to anyone who asks.
The artist has never been attracted to what he calls “lifeless photorealism.” He believes figurative art is energized through exaggeration. He transforms the hooligans, whores, punch-drunk prize fighters, and homeless “dossers” he encountered on the mean streets of the Gallowgate district of Glasgow, where he once kept a studio, into the physically overdeveloped types who populate his dark visual world. His compositions have the feeling of Baroque ceiling frescoes. Tightly packed figures tumble into view in a jumbled mass of arms and legs against contrived backdrops of billowing clouds, twisted trees, or sinister urban architecture. The artist delights in distorting perspective, varying scale, mixing time periods, and heightening light effects—all in the service of visual narrative. Howson’s main problem is how to keep these multi-layered constructs from toppling over into caricature.
One subject transcends typing in Howson’s art: the image of Christ. With the notable exception of Rembrandt, most western religious art makers down the centuries have remained reasonably true to canons of Christ portraiture, a tradition partly derived from the apocryphal Letter of Lentulus, a supposed first-century description of Jesus as “the most beautiful of mortals.” The most widely recognized portrait of Christ on the planet today is Head of Christ (1940) by Warner Sallman, a commercial artist from the American Midwest who first saw his back-lit, Nordic-featured Jesus in a vision, just in time to meet his deadline for a church publication. In a peculiarly American mix of genuine piety and blatant commercialism, the image has been reproduced close to a billion times, on everything from jigsaw puzzles to coffee mugs. Howson seeks a Christ who can neither be trapped in iconographic convention nor hand-painted on polyester neckties.
How does the redeemer of the world look? Howson presents us with a rich range of possibilities. In Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus, there is the Grünewald-styled Christ in close-up, whose haunted eyes stare out from under the hands of Simon, who bears the cross [see Plate 2]. In Jesus Is Given the Cross Christ is bent by his burden, his crushed features deconstructing into lines as twisted as the crown of thorns on his head [see Plate 3]. And in Mountblow there is Christ in the abstract, his face oozing across the paper like the sweat-and-blood imprint on Saint Veronica’s veil [see Plate 5]. Each daily drawing session offers a new variation. Says Howson: “You can depict Christ thousands, even millions of times, and you won’t get the same face or expression. I don’t believe I could ever repeat myself. Every single time I do the Man of Sorrows or some other image of Jesus, I draw tremendous strength from it.”
As Howson well knows, traditional imagery of an unblemished, idealized Christ has extraordinary staying power in the western imagination. Howson’s radically different portraits of a very human Jesus can be unsettling both to religious and nonreligious viewers. Art observers at the Redemption show took particular exception to Outcast, the artist’s latest oil-on-canvas treatment of his favorite theme, the mocking of Christ [see Plate 6]. They felt his abused and battered Jesus was made a bit too much of common clay. As Cohen noted: “No one would expect Howson to deliver an effete, Italianate beauty for the Man of Sorrows. But the Christ in his Outcast (2011) seems only distinguishable from the gargoyles tormenting him thanks to his crown of thorns.” For this very reason, the painting is, to my mind, one of the more compelling images of the Passion in contemporary religious art.
The gaunt, craggy-faced Jesus stands awkwardly, his robe tightly wrapped around his torso like a straightjacket. The tendons of his neck bulge as he fights to hold himself upright, while four sausage-like fingers clamped to the back of his head push him down. His eyes, highlighted by the only strong accent of blue in the autumnal-toned canvas, stare resolutely beyond his tormentors at some fixed point outside the frame. This Christ is the light of a chiaroscuro world. The aureole about his head sparkles like an extraterrestrial vehicle in a Steven Spielberg film, illuminating the surrounding grotesques. The figure at the lower left, whose splayed right hand seems to hold the scene in place, is sticking out his tongue. At any moment he might be transformed into a communicant, partaking of the body and blood of the savior who now stands before him. Redemption is possible, even in this visual hellhole.
Howson is not just Christocentric in subject matter; his AD compositions are literally Christ-centered. In darkly dystopian, pre-conversion paintings like Death of Innocence (1989) and Age of Apathy (1992) Howson serves up featureless victims, trussed and hoisted on whipping posts, to militaristic mobs baying for blood. When the artist gave the face of Christ to these anonymous scapegoats, he found a theological focus for his preoccupation with violence and a visual pivot on which his multi-figured compositions could turn. You can see this dynamic at work in Outcast and in the pencil-on-gessoed-panel drawing Imposter (2005), where his usual assortment of knobby-headed, protruding-lipped Neanderthal figures is grouped around Jesus [see Plate 4]. Christ has become the focus of their skepticism, scorn, fear, indifference, and rage. His long-suffering face completes a tight compositional circle, becoming a fixed point of love in a vortex of hate.
There are circles within circles in Howson’s busily baroque Hades III [see Plate 7]. Christ hits hell like a heaven-sent meteor. An inner ring of harshly highlighted, flesh-toned figures immediately forms around the dazzling harrower; then, the shockwave creates a second concentric mass of blue-brown forms emerging from darkness. The inferno-dwellers recapitulate the artist’s favorite themes: His wizened Don Quixote prototype appears just to the right of Christ. The long-limbed, dancing nude recalls Howson’s headline-grabbing study of pop star Madonna as odalisque. The salvation-seeking figure from The Third Step appears directly below a football fanatic in a blue visored cap from the artist’s Game Boys series. And of course, Lucie is there. She is the blonde in jeans and white T-shirt struggling to break free from a ghoul’s grip so she can reach her redeemer in rags. This is a Christ we might recognize on Judgment Day from the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, and the imprisoned whom we helped—or ignored—in this life.
The fact that Howson channels his considerable talent and energy into figurative religious painting bodes well for this once dominant, now sadly diminished genre. Donald Kuspit describes Howson as “the Scottish Bosch,” 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.’” Howson’s unconventional portraits of Christ suggest comparisons to Rembrandt, as well. The Dutch master was a pioneer in pushing the limits of religious imagery in his day, depicting Jesus from life using a Jewish model—a daring innovation that unfortunately was not taken up by later painters. Howson faces challenges of a very different sort in a modern, highly secularized art scene, where even some comtemporary artists of faith disown the very concept of figurative religious art.
Looking at Howson’s disturbingly personal images, you sense that every time he picks up a brush, he is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “working out his own salvation in fear and trembling.” The artist pays homage to Dante’s Inferno in images and titles, and like the author of the Divine Comedy he takes us on an artistic journey into hellish regions of the mind and heart few of us will ever personally visit, daring us to look at the horror, holding out hope that salvation can come even at the lowest depths. Howson says he would consider his artistic and personal struggles to be worthwhile, “if I could do one painting that could change someone’s life.” His religious works may not appeal to Britain’s artistic elite, but he takes great satisfaction in knowing he has a following among Scottish prison inmates for whom redemption is a very real issue. To have completed a major religious commission for an important urban sanctuary in this day and age is also something of a minor miracle, however badly managed the business might have been.
I recently visited Saint Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow to have a closer look at the problem-plagued Ogilvie painting. The three-quarter-length portrait of the saint seemed so perfectly placed in the Blessed Sacrament chapel to the left of the main altar that I found it hard to imagine a multi-figured canvas in the style of Michelangelo there or anywhere else in the Neo-Gothic sanctuary. Ogilvie stands alone in pitch darkness, enveloped by a glowing cloud. His highlighted face is haggard, his deep-set eyes pleading, his paw-like hands clasped in prayer. A noose rests loosely around his neck. The long thin rope stretches beyond the edge of the canvas. In a moment, it will be pulled taut. I could almost make out words from Golgotha forming on the saint’s lips: “Into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” Another harrowing scene from Howson. The agony of art making, anywhere, anytime. My aesthetic musings were interrupted by a middle-aged man in a coat and tie who gripped the end of the pew where I was sitting and genuflected toward the altar. Lighting a candle, he knelt at the chapel railing to pray in the presence of the holy image.