Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Seeing Gaza from Scotland

Cluster bombs are preoccupying Peter Howson. “I'm obsessed with cluster bombs right now,” he growls. “And this picture - you even have the mosque in there, with the bombs going off all around it.” The artist stands by the window in his study. Behind him, the Ayrshire hills shimmer on a crisp winter's morning, a beautiful, tranquil prospect. But Howson's attention is entirely focussed on his work, scattered over the floor, images of desolation that he has pulled from the 20 or so sketchbooks piled on his desk.

Each one is more terrifying than the last. A line drawing of a figure in agonising pain. Children fleeing some unseen horror. A couple embracing - they seem lost in a moment of sexual ecstasy, until you look closer. “It's actually a dying pregnant woman,” Howson says in his slow, resonant voice.

This is Peter Howson, the Scottish artist, whose chaotic, difficult life, can't subdue his talent. Howson is famous for his often shocking figurative work - and for his extraordinary life, in which he has overcome his Asperger's Syndrome, his addictions to alcohol and cocaine, a failed marriage, and the attentions of all sorts of strange and occasionally vindictive people.

He is a tremendous interviewee, who just takes on direct questions, however impertinent they might seem to an outsider. Among other things, in the course of this interview, we moved into his personal life, where he almost unhesitatingly revealed the unusual domestic arrangements he shares with his partner of six years, Annie.

We don't have what you might call a normal relationship,” he says. “We stay in different parts of the house. She takes care of me a lot of the time, I take care of her in some ways. Sometimes we get a bit confused, but not really. I know we are a couple who love each other very much and care for each other. We're just not a proper couple in that we don't have a physical relationship.”

He meets Annie in the evenings, he says, for a hour or so, when they sit in front of the television. When their programmes are finished, they go their separate ways to bed.But how can such a passionate man resist a beautiful woman such as Annie? “I love women, I do,” he pleads. “Probably that's one of my big dangers. I'm a visual person, I love beauty. There's comes a point in life... Beauty can lead you to God, in the way that Dante was led through Beatrice. You have to sanctify it at some point.”

Read the full interview, which appeared in the UK edition of the Times, here: Howson on Gaza

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