Peter Howson: My work is quite full-on

·5 min read
Peter Howson and his new self portrait
The retrospective exhbition includes a new self-portrait

Renowned Scottish artist Peter Howson says he found viewing a new exhibition of his work going back 40 years to be "quite full-on".

The 65-year-old says he was glad to get home after visiting the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, where the biggest exhibition of his career begins at the weekend.

"There is so much gloom and doom," he says. "It's quite depressing actually."

The exhibition, which runs until October, brings together more than 100 works, tracing his career from his student days to the present.

It has been assembled from public and private collections spanning the UK and Europe, with many of the works never having been seen in public before.

Insanus Omnis Furere Credit Ceteros (All madmen think that everyone else is mad); 2022; inks on paper; 51 x 76cm; private collection; © the artist; photograph Ian Marshall
Insanus Omnis Furere Credit Ceteros (All madmen think that everyone else is mad); 2022
Job; 2011; oil on canvas; 182 x 152cm; Alan and Karen Turner; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente
Job 2011 - An example of Howson's biblical paintings
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Short presentational grey line
Prophecy; 2016; oil on canvas; 183.5 x 245cm; private collection; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente
Prophecy 2016 - The making of this painting was developed into a major film

Howson says that a preview of the new exhibition for friends of the gallery had left some in tears.

"I don't know whether they were crying with joy or with anguish," he says.

"I think they enjoyed it. It got the thumbs up from them."

Despite Howson's opinion of his own work, he says he is "chuffed" with the way the exhibition has been put together.

"I am absolutely amazed at how well the team have done," he says.

The pictures on display included Howson's first self-portrait since 2008, painted at his Glasgow studio earlier this year.

He says he hopes it captures the madness and obsession of an artist's life.

Trinity; 2020; oil on canvas; 183 x 153cm; Flowers Gallery
Trinity; 2020
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Short presentational grey line
Jekyll and Hyde; 1995; oil on canvas; 91.5 x 152.5cm; private collection; © the artist
Jekyll and Hyde; 1995 - One of Howson's many self-portraits, capturing his internal struggles
Analysis box by Pauline McLean, BBC Scotland arts correspondent
Analysis box by Pauline McLean, BBC Scotland arts correspondent

If artist Peter Howson is feeling overwhelmed, spare a thought for the rest of us.

This huge exhibition across three floors of the City Arts Centre is the largest ever staged.

Each floor is devoted to a strand of his work from the celebrity years - an abundant nude of Madonna, and a portrait of David Bowie, both painted after they bought other Howson works.

Many are borrowed from private collections, including the grotesque Blind Leading the Blind III, in which he uses his friend Robbie Coltrane as the central figure in a wheelchair at an Orange Walk.

The middle floor is equally packed, this time with his religious paintings, familiar works sit amongst private commissions.

The 14 Stations of the Cross feel strangely incongruous on a gallery wall but it's a rare chance to see them in public.

There's a room set aside for his Bosnian paintings, made when he was appointed as a war artist.

The experience was life changing, and led to drug and alcohol abuse and well-documented mental health issues.

The visceral images still haunt his work today - and the top floor, where his recent paintings are, includes one entitled Wagner which shows the same thuggish flag-waving behaviour in another war in Ukraine.

There are notebooks and newspaper cuttings, early self portraits and other little hints of the artist who says he still hasn't mastered his craft.

A new self portrait - his first in more than 20 years - glares down at visitors.

I suggest he's been a little harsh on himself.

He laughs.

"I paint what I see, I suppose I was in a terrible mood that day. I'm a grumpy person."

Grew up in Ayrshire

Blind Leading the Blind I; 1991; oil on canvas; 244 x 183cm; private Collection; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente
Blind Leading the Blind I; 1991
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Short presentational grey line

Howson, who grew up in Ayrshire and studied at the Glasgow School of Art, first came to fame in the 1980s with works showing very masculine working-class men.

He was later commissioned to be the official war artist for the Bosnian War.

He was so traumatised he asked to go home within days without having done any artistic work.

However, he decided to go back about six months later and this time he created a collection of dark and disturbing works which were shown in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London in 1994.

In the aftermath of his trip to Bosnia, the horror of war continued to haunt him.

His marriage to Terry, the mother of his daughter, broke up as a result of his trip and he took to drink and drugs.

Regimental Bath; 1985; oil on canvas; 185 x 138cm; City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries; © the artist; photograph Antonia Reeve
Regimental Bath; 1985 - An early work based on traumatic army experience
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Short presentational grey line

As recently as 2013, he spent two years in a psychiatric unit following another mental collapse that doctors claim stemmed from what he witnessed in Bosnia.

Howson says the process of creating art is a mystery.

"It is a process of inspiration, technique and magic, and comes together and is completed in a way that doesn't need too much explanation," he says.

"It is an open door into the wonder and mystery of existence."

The artist says he is worried about the future of art and he's "aghast" at the possibility of artificial intelligence being used.

Barrier Sunset; 1995; oil on canvas; 122 x 183cm; Flowers Gallery, London; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente
Barrier Sunset; 1995

Howson, who says he does not even carry a mobile phone, does not think there are any elements of AI that can be useful to artists.

"It's like a Pandora's box," he says." Once it's opened, it's hell. I don't think it's a good idea. I really don't."

He hopes the new exhibition gives people a chance to see work that is created using "real techniques which are hand-done".

"They go directly from my brain to my hands and on to canvas or paper," he says. "There is nothing mechanical about it. This is just technique and years of learning.

"I sound like an old dinosaur but I'd rather be a dinosaur than be a hypocrite really. I have to say what I feel. I'm just an artist. I want to just paint."

When the Apple Ripens: Peter Howson at 65: A Retrospective opens at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh on Saturday 27 May 2023 and runs until Sunday 1 October 2023.

All images copyright Peter Howson