Howson, Peter - VM - James McCullough
Peter Howson: Plum Grove
Finding God amid Decadence and Decay
by James McCullough
The image is disturbing. Framed in close proximity in a lateral viewpoint, one is immediately struck by its vividness of colour and staccato brushwork reminiscent of Max Beckmann. As the eye focuses, the subject matter becomes increasingly apparent. It is a man hung upon a tree limb, his arms tied behind his back and his lifeless body hanging downward. A single rope has been used to tie him to the limb, traversing his chest, catching his right leg and suspending it painfully upward, while the rope continues around and holds his left arm onto a branch.
The result is a grotesque contortion of the body. The victim’s head hangs down, leading the viewer’s eye towards his torso, where it becomes apparent that his trousers have been pulled down and he has been castrated and dismembered. Above the up-raised left hand a crow is beginning to feast, and at the right and left of the victim two children gawk at the spectacle. Greens of surrounding vegetation, whites of houses in the background, and pale blues of the children’s clothes and of the sky dominate the colour scheme.
Peter Howson’s very public career as an artist began in the early 1980’s as one of the ‘New Glasgow Boys,’ a group of artists committed to bold figurative painting and strong narrative content. His work is generally labeled as social realism and throughout the eighties and early nineties Howson produced canvases filled with the human detritus of the Glasgow underclass: homeless transients, pub crawlers, footballers and fanatics, pugilists and prostitutes. The images he produced and the stories he told were always hard but rarely hopeless. Even as Howson’s own life took a downward spiral of addiction and abuse, a strange light accompanies almost all of his paintings.
A major turn-around occurred for him in the commission he received to serve as a war artist covering the Bosnian war that was then raging. In the course of two trips into the war zone between 1993 and 1994 Howson made a record of the atrocities that characterized the conflict. Many of the paintings, sketches and pastels that Howson produced are exhibited in the British Imperial War Museum. Several caused scandal and were purchased by private collectors. The experience both shattered and re-made Howson and contributed to his re-commitment to Christian faith in 2000.
Plum Grove is one of the major paintings that emerged from Howson’s time in Bosnia. It reflects several important influences on his art. Mention has been made of Beckmann, one of the German Expressionists of the early twentieth century, whose disturbing images of post-war Germany and virtuosic use of colour and intensified brushwork haunted Howson’s imagination. But another influence that profoundly shapes Howson’s entire career, more explicit now in his recent work, is that of Christ and his sufferings. Look carefully again at the painting. What image begins to emerge for you? Of what does it begin to remind you? What does it mean to insinuate this kind of image in the midst of a series on a contemporary circumstance?
Part of the spiritual power of Howson’s art is his ability to implicate Christ’s presence in the midst of human disorientation and dissolution. He once said that he found God amid ‘decadence and decay’ or, in this case, the atrocious. Can we? Or have we become so accustomed to associating the divine with the pretty and the consoling that we miss the Man of Sorrows, whose appearance was ‘marred beyond human semblance’ and from whom ‘men hide their faces’ where he manifests himself today?
Peter Howson: Plum Grove, 1994, oil on canvas, 213 x 152.5 cm, ©Peter Howson, courtesy Flowers London.
Peter Howson (b. 1958) was born in London, England, but has lived in Glasgow, Scotland, for most of his life. His most recent work includes several series of the Stations of the Cross as well as a portrait of St. John Ogilvie for St Andrews Cathedral, Glasgow.
James McCullough acquired a PhD from St Andrews University in Scotland, having done his work at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. Currently he is an adjunct faculty at Lindenwood University in St Charles, Missouri and on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (USA) at Washington University.
ArtWay Visual Meditation July 22, 2012