FEATURE PETER HOWSON
Howson’s Heroic Dosser remains probably the most memorable image produced by any contemporary Scottish artist.
Modern Art academicism?; the second — how legitimate in terms of its art historical context is Howson painting?
The ﬁrst is. of course, far easier to answer than the second.
Howson’s generation of Glasgow-trained artists. was young enough to escape the post-war obsession with abstraction which had made life difficult for several generations of students inclined towards ﬁguration. Moreover, he was fortunate at art school in beneﬁting from the encouragement of the artist Sandy Moffat. Perceiving the natural predilection of a student, Moffat would encourage him or her to “go for it‘.
Beyond the portals of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ﬁne building, Howson could also look to John Bellany — another Scottish artist of the older generation who had stuck with the ﬁgure through the arid years of abstraction. Op- and Pop-Art — as a role-model of conviction and determination.
Doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time is as important for the success of an artist as it is in any other area of life, and Howson’s passion for masculine subject matter also chimed in with the media-promoted zeitgeist of the 805: the male physique, appreciation of which had been in abeyance virtually since the Renaissance, had suddenly replaced the female as the sexual totem. The world Howson chose to depict seemed from the outset relevant.
Add to all these happily conducive specific elements the universal change of spirit which made the studying of Old Masters a respectable activity for aspiring artists — Howson numbers Géricault among his heroes — and it is not hard to understand why Howson has thrived.
As for the art historical legitimacy of Howson’s art. judgements are far more difﬁcult to make.
Outside Scotland (it might be truer to say outside Glasgow). Howson‘s pictures are appreciated to a great extent for what is perceived as their honesty in conveying the under belly of life in Scotland’s most populous city, and this factor — more than any other — has tended to legitimise the artist’s vision. Ironically, of course, Glasgow no longer quite lives up to its one-time image of squalid tenements and razor gangs.
Social problems. of course. there are in abundance; but. however generous one might wish to be to Howson, his version of the place, even allowing for artistic licence. is a caricature. Along with the other Glasgow painters of his generation - Ken Currie is closest to Howson among them — he has self-consciously egged the pudding of Glasgow street life.
From a stylistic point of view, Howson’s painting also presents grounds for scepticism. The kind of exaggerated realism at which he is adept was to varying degrees always acceptable in previous centuries when the ﬁgurative tradition in western art was the paramount one. In our pluralist times no such bedrock of stylistic support exists; each picture stands or falls by virtue of what is perceived to be its degree of truthfulness to the contemporary situation.
Already, in l993, the ﬁguration espoused with such relish by the so-called new Glasgow Boys, is looking tired and over-wrought, if for no other reasons than that the public which cares about such things has seen enough of it and younger artists, embracing either radical abstraction or anti- art performance. have turned their backs on it.
Nevertheless, on its own very clear terms, Howson’s achievement on show at the McLellan Galleries, is a very impressive one indeed. No matter how successful and proliﬁc an artist is, it is highly likely that in the long run he or she will only be remembered for a single work. In spite of his more recent complex epics, Howson’s Noble Dosser remains probably the most memorable image produced by any contemporary Scottish artist. CI The Peter Howson retrospective is at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow from 2 Jul (0 5 Sept.
Peter Howson by Robert Heller is published by Mainstream ( f I 4. 99 hardback)
The lterolc D
The Bridge To Nowhere 1991 (detell)
14 The List 2—15 July 1993