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Film review: Prophecy

21 June 2019

Stephen Brown sees a documentary about the artist Peter Howson

Charlie Paul

Peter Howson and his work Prophecy, in the documentary of the same name, on current release

Peter Howson and his work Prophecy, in the documentary of the same name, on current release

PETER HOWSON is a Glasgow-based artist who’s produced more than 1000 paintings valued at more than $60 million. The documentary Prophecy (Cert. N/C 15+), named after a recent work, chronicles the stages that this piece undergoes before being shipped to America. The painter, diagnosed aspergic, converted to Christianity some years ago after alcohol and drug addiction. Since then, he has majored on religious themes.

Prophecy stems from a vivid vision of the gates of hell. Beneath a thin layer of civilisation, the artist perceives anarchy and chaos. He claims that the picture is like Christ saving the whole of humanity. As depicted, it is a sad, evil spectacle of writhing, distorted bodies. The film runs through daily routines of amending what is already on canvas. Intermittently, there is space for viewers to contemplate the painting at an earlier stage before being subjected to a series of subsequent shots building up the contents, textures, and colours through stop-motion technique. It is a powerful cinematic device for demonstrating the painstaking care and craft involved.

The camera glides along Howson’s bookshelves, revealing some of the sources of his inspiration. Together with several Bibles, Nicolas Berdyaev’s Freedom and the Spirit figures prominently, with its spiritual notions of creativity. Dante’s The Divine Comedy is likewise on show, but, even if it weren’t, we would know that influence from the painting. Howson is particularly fascinated by the poem’s idea that the worst part of hell is reserved for the apathetic. Those blowing neither hot nor cold — the slothful — feature prominently in the picture.

Music is a driving force for the painter. At one point, he tells Charlie Paul (director and cameraman) that he needs to play a CD to continue. The piece selected is Viatore by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, son of a Baptist pastor. Throughout the film, we hear various other works of his, including Epifania, underscoring Howson’s belief that art makes the invisible deity manifest. The most surprising soundtrack item is Chet Baker’s rendition of “The More I See You”; but quickly we realise why it’s there. The following lyrics (“The more I want you”) suggest the obsessional, compulsive nature of Howson’s love for the painting. He cannot leave his creation alone. Eventually, he has to let go and let God. Through painting, he feels he is participating in God’s continuous activity as Creator — that perpetual engagement with a world desperately in need of renewal.

Howson’s artistic heroes include Bruegel, with his similarly grim canvases of unsmiling people. Hieronymous Bosch might be more pertinent, given the contemporary artist’s passionate conviction that the world is going to hell in a handcart. His theology, verging on Manichaeism, takes little cognisance of salvation this side of the grave.

The exception is Lucie, his beloved daughter, who has had to overcome many physical setbacks. “I love you more than anything else in the whole universe apart from God,” he tells her. She appears somewhere in many paintings including Prophecy. Here she clutches the crucified Christ’s crown of thorns “like a holy relic with its power to heal”. Lucie is the picture’s redeeming feature, providing that otherwise absent glimpse of heaven.

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