Something about a frenzy? – Peter Howson

April 13, 2002

Picture a man who will talk about anything: the breakdown of his marriage, his terror in Bosnia, his lifelong guilt and urge to self-destruction, his alcoholism, his addiction to prescription drugs, the hurt he has inflicted on those who love him. Now imagine a woman who makes everything public: her sexual fantasies, her multiple identities, her haemorrhoids in pregnancy, her body. What might happen if the man in question claimed to reveal the hidden nature of this woman through a nude portrait?

The controversy over Peter Howson’s painting of Madonna is so riddled with sterile irony that it is tempting to dismiss the whole episode as smoke and mirrors. A manufactured media event. The collision of two skilful self-publicists. But Howson is a capital-A Artist, an original, hailed as one of the Scottish greats. Cashing in on media interest is one thing, but would he prostitute his talent to paint a press release in oils?

Howson and Madonna first met 15 years ago when she was already a collector of his work. They bumped into each other at parties and other social gatherings. There was once a plan for them to rendezvous alone in a restaurant but the word got out and by the time the star arrived a small crowd had gathered, so she turned on her heel and left. Latterly their dealings have been pretty one-sided: he has written to her, she has not written back. He was not invited to her wedding, unlike Tracey Emin.

He has been making sketches for a portrait for the past ten years with the intermittent encouragement of “her people”. The signals were mixed, sometimes she was keen to sit for him, sometimes he was told she had gone cold on the project. Three or four months ago, he claims, he was told to go ahead with it anyway.

In the end he did two paintings which, along with several pre-drawings, form part of an exhibition opening tomorrow in Ayr. The less significant work – a depiction of Madonna squatting in a graveyard – he calls the decoy painting, having fooled the Sunday Times into thinking this was the big one. (“It’s a little game I played. I had a good chuckle for five minutes about it.”) The more important canvas shows the singer naked on a bed surrounded by symbols of Eve, Salome, the Jewish heroine Esther, Thais the harlot from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Until Wednesday both portraits were cloaked in secrecy and the subject of avid media interest, the feeding frenzy being aggravated by the indignation of the Madonna camp. Though her staff were insisting Madonna had seen neither the paintings nor the preliminary sketches Howson faxed to her.

One of the portraits which may, or may not, have angered the pop star.

And that’s all there is to it: a nude image of a subject who did not pose for the artist, though the whole world has seen her in the buff. A portrait of “the real Madonna” painted by a man whose contact with her has always been mediated by her entourage. The outrage of a star, not at the paintings themselves, but at the idea of them. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Howson has pressed his paintbrushes into the service of a smirking piece of conceptual art?

He says not. However tenuous his connection with Madonna appears to the objective eye, Howson calls it a relationship. When they first met in Los Angeles, he was captivated by her as a personality. “Something came off her, an aura, I thought, ‘This woman: there’s something very special about her’. From that point onward I was completely obsessed with painting her in the nude.” She entered his subconscious, turning up in his nightmares. He finds her – not her music, he’s a classical fan himself – “incredibly interesting”.

Unsurprisingly, he has been accused of exploiting the great self-publicist for his own personal publicity. Various newspapers have speculated that he is trying to get past her courtiers and make contact with the star herself, that the paintings are motivated by the fascination an often-bullied man feels for a dominant woman. There seems to be a grain of truth in each of these theories but the one that has him sitting up, wide-eyed with engagement, is the idea that the portraits are payback.

He is aggrieved with her, he says. He sent presents for her children, including one of the best drawings he has ever done, and received no note of thanks. He knows it’s petty but he resents the fact that she presented the Turner Prize to Martin Creed. He’s envious of her success too. “My ego says I’m just as talented as she is, if not more so, and she’s more famous than me. This is my day. There’s nothing she can do about it.” As a control freak himself, he knows how this will affect her. “Men and women are born to hurt each other,” he says. “It’s as if I’m hurting Madonna.” Yet, for all this, he insists the paintings are a tribute. “I’m not taking the mickey.” This is the way he sees her.

Howson has made some extravagant claims for the main portrait: that it shows a humanity absent from her photographs, a deeper Madonna, that it is more real than reality itself. We’re all cowed by the mystique of the artist. If Peter Howson claims a profundity of vision who are we to demur? And yet … The symbols he has placed around her are not so very different from Madonna’s own trash aesthetic of crucifixes and religious whores. Howson seems struck by this point but holds his ground. “You’re talking about a trash aesthetic through her publicity machine. I don’t believe it’s the real Madonna deep down. She’s colluding with it to make vast amounts of money and fame.” Having said this, he doesn’t need me to point out the implications. Suddenly he capitulates.

“God, maybe you’ve hit the nail on the head. Maybe I’m not fascinated by Madonna, maybe I just want to get back at Madonna. I don’t really know. Let’s just say if I was to look at the whole thing honestly, the Madonna paintings are in the gallery but they’re not the paintings I’m most interested in. Maybe this is a subconscious, or conscious, desire to get a hell of a lot of people into the gallery. There’s a possibility that I’m just using Madonna – but she’s fair game. Anyone who expresses themselves in any art form is fair game.”

Plainly he is heartily sick of the subject by now but, working on the fair game principle, it seems reasonable to press the point. What does he really think about Madonna? “From what I’ve read about her – and I haven’t read that extensively – I don’t agree with her philosophy of life, which is to do with strength and no compassion. My philosophy is strength and compassion.”

So all his highfalutin artistic claims boil down to a half-informed philosophical difference, a spot of pique and an eye to the main chance? The portrait “more real than reality” turns out to be a banal distillation of the singer’s own banality? Or should we suspect another five-minute chuckle? Sitting across the table from his candid gaze, I have absolutely no idea.

Peter Howson has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that manifests itself in a phenomenal memory for detail and an obsessional need for routine: phoning his teenage daughter at the same time every day; going to bed at the same time every night. Those affected tend to be poor people-readers, unable to imagine the consequences of their actions, liable to be rude to strangers and hurtful to friends. He once flew from London to Glasgow, remembered a neglected task in London and took the next flight back without thinking to inform his daughter, who was waiting for him in the Glasgow airport terminal.

Many an interviewer has had reason to give thanks for Howson’s condition. Ask him a question and he’ll answer it. He has generated an extraordinary amount of lurid copy over the years: his experience of sexual abuse in childhood, the bullying he suffered at school which he tried to exorcise by becoming a body-building macho man, the breakdown after his stint as an official war artist, his addiction to booze and pills, the lovers who bullied him and ripped him off, the hundreds of thousands he has let slip through his fingers, his illicit sales to notorious Glasgow gangsters. But this journalists’ picnic has its price. Not all his confessions have turned out to be 100 per cent accurate. He subsequently denied the gangster story. He means what he says when he says it, but the next day things change …

At the age of 44 he’s thinning on top, baggy-faced, soft in the belly and long in the tooth, yet there’s something childlike about him. I don’t mean this sentimentally: a clever child, the sort who can lie undetectably while looking you in the eye, but an easy person to be around. Anything can be said. Forget the normal etiquette between strangers, the need to pick your way through the minefield of another’s sensibilities. Howson has his touchy spots, but until he tells you where they are there is no way of knowing. To spend time in his company is to understand how strange communication is without non-verbal cues, how weightless words become. For a couple of hours, autism is a two-way street.

Insights and commonplaces turn up in the same sentence. He talks about Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears in the same voice as he discusses Ingres, Delacroix and Velazquez. And yet it’s not like sitting opposite a Martian. He laughs, makes jokes which are funny, nods in eager assent before I’ve finished speaking. Then mistrusts his own intuition and has to ask me to finish the sentence anyway.

He has been married twice and had several relationships, but the obsessive timetable he lives by put his partners under tremendous strain. He never went out. When people came round to dinner he’d get up from the table in the middle of the meal and disappear into his bedroom. Everything was secondary to his painting. He’s been told by all his lovers that he’s the most boring bastard they’ve ever been with. Such was his terror of being alone that he used to overlap his relationships, causing stress to himself and hurt to the women concerned. He left his second marriage because he was completely insane, he says. What with the drinking and his obsessive nature, he couldn’t relax. Feeling that he did not deserve his happiness, he destroyed it. Now, for the first time since 1976, he is single and at ease. At long last he has started to like his own company.

Howson’s redemption dates from two years ago when he took himself and his quarter-century of alcoholism off to Castle Craig Clinic in West Linton. There he shed his addictions, found God, and had a lot of therapy. His account of himself pre-rehab smacks of the reformed sinner’s self-loathing, but even if he was half as bad it’s hard to imagine anyone getting involved with him. “Unsociable, uncaring, unlovable …” Here he interrupts himself. “Not unlovable maybe, but certainly unemotional, completely focused on the work.”

He is currently working on three commissions and thinks about them all the time, getting up every hour through the night to jot down ideas. “Sitting here talking to you is less real than me painting.” And not just because I’m a journalist: he feels the same with any human contact. “I don’t see this as being that real, there’s a screen.” He waves his hand in front of his face. Over the years some people have penetrated to the real him, but these days there are hardly any survivors.

The exception is his daughter Lucie, who has a more extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome. Gone are the days of leaving her stranded at Glasgow airport, or forcing her to spend a night walking round Kelvingrove Park while he lay in his flat in a drunken coma. He has two ambitions: the lasting impact of his art, and to be with her for eternity, a goal he is confident of achieving thanks to his new-found faith in God. He claims to have a telepathic link with Lucie (though it is tempting to interpret this as the sort of connection those of us without Asperger’s routinely enjoy). They have similar obsessions about routine, similarly phenomenal memories – Howson claims a detailed recollection of everything that has ever happened to him – and similar ways of ordering data. “My mind is very much like my daughter’s. We’re collectors of information. The only thing about my daughter is she can’t process it.”

Howson cares about his parents to a lesser extent. With everyone else it’s a case of trying to be charitable, and learning the social graces. “I can’t interact.” There’s no emotional response, unless you count guilt. “With autism you don’t care about other people’s feelings – and yet you do. Your instinct is not to care but deep down you desperately want to care. You do feel remorse and confusion when someone says, ‘You’ve hurt me’.”

It is in the context of this admission that Peter Howson, the painter who would rather commune with the canvas than engage in human contact, delivers his big surprise. “What I’m trying to do is move people,” he says. “I’m basically a romantic as opposed to the classicists: I’m trying to move people emotionally and romantically rather than intellectually. Although hopefully I can do both.”

Howson first found success in the mid-1980s. His paintings of yobs, thugs and dossers possessed an aggressive power that impressed critics and collectors alike. He was bought by David Bowie, Sylvester Stallone, John McEnroe and Madonna, who was reported to have hung one of his canvases in her bedroom. None of this did his profile any harm. Howson, Ken Currie, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski were dubbed The New Glasgow Boys and acclaimed as an exciting new generation of figurative painters. Howson and Currie had most in common: both politically aware artists with something to say, sharing a darkness of vision and a concern with those marginalised by society.

Julian Spalding, who bought Howson’s work while director of Glasgow Galleries, regards him very highly. “If you think back over the last ten or 20 years there aren’t many artists who have come up with such a powerful sequence of images of modern life. He sees things with a strength and a clarity that other people just don’t. At his best he’s a real observer of our times, a searing looker. What he says isn’t comfortable at all, but then the artist’s job is to tell us what he sees and sees clearly, not to moralise about it.”

Howson’s recurrent theme is aggression. Boxers. Hard men. Patriotic thugs with pitbulls. Lynch mobs. The unspeakable atrocities of the Balkans. Often this aggression is coupled with frustration. The figures in his canvases do not quite connect with each other. The screen Howson experiences in life translates to the canvas. In such works as Broken Boat (1990), and Plum Grove (1994), completed after his time in Bosnia, uncomprehending children are juxtaposed with adult victims of horrific violence.

“They’re certainly disturbing, that’s a form of movement in that you want to move away from them,” Spalding says. “But it’s not like looking at a Rembrandt or listening to Billie Holiday sing: looking into a fabulous deep pool and you know the more you look, the more you feel. There’s a sense of frustrated power and anger in Howson, but I wouldn’t call them moving in the sense of emotional.”

In recent years the fickle finger of fashion has favoured conceptual artists above traditional painters and Howson’s star has dimmed somewhat. This distresses him for good practical reasons, but also because it plays on his personal insecurity. He has kept every newspaper article ever printed about him and sees this archive as an answer to every woman who has ever called him boring. Despite the unreliability of these clippings, he believes that, taken together, they represent some sort of ultimate truth. “One day someone will read through them and say, ‘This guy was either a publicity-mad fiend or …’ ” He tails off. Or? “Someone who’s incredibly interesting’.”

BritArt is shallow, he says, a New Labour stunt. It’s no coincidence that, with New Labour starting to falter, painting is showing signs of a revival. But in his next breath he’s full of doubt. “I’m worried about the world becoming so materialistic that computers mean more than painting.”

Isn’t his mind like a computer, I ask, misunderstanding: it turns out he means computer art, not computers per se – though he hates them too. Even after he puts me right, the opposition of painting and computers seems resonant. In a sense they are the twin poles of his identity: painting carrying his humanity, his ability – or his aspiration – to feel, and computers representing his autism.

But of course, Howson’s art is a product of the whole man. His clarity of vision, his photographic memory, his detachment and his desire to care. His autism is at once a disjuncture from human experience and a point of contact with the alienation of modern life. We’ve all hurt people unwittingly, or looked into their eyes and thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re feeling’, we’re all struggling to get past the data to the emotions underneath. Despite his aspirations as a romantic painter, it’s the ever-present screen that makes him relevant to the 21st century.

Which brings us back to his portrait of the ubiquitous, unreachable Madonna. With her he experienced Asperger’s syndrome from the other side. Maybe that’s what hooked him. What could be more challenging to the autistic artist than the autistic star?

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications