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War artist’s portrait of despair

13 February, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Scottish artist Peter Howson’s painting, Holocaust Crowd Scene II, has been bought by the Ben Uri Gallery in St John’s Wood

A POWERFUL stark depiction by Peter Howson, one of our most significant war artists, of inmates in a Nazi death camp has been bought by the Ben Uri Gallery in St John’s Wood to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp.

It is impossible not to be stunned by the sheer starkness of the painting that could only have come from the pained imagination of Glaswegian Peter Howson who is one of the few painters I know of who can feel the agony and despair of tortured and abandoned souls.

I first came across him about 15 years ago when I was drawn to his works in Glasgow by which time he had been honoured as a war artist in Bosnia.

Very much a people’s artist, he had painted miners in the miners’ strike of 1984 and always seemed drawn to put on canvas the faces of people other artists miss.

Peter Howson.

It is difficult to forget one of his shows at the Flowers Gallery in Hackney where I spotted a treasure of one of his notepads on a table containing beautifully drawn faces he had come across in a visit to Israel – people on buses, in the street, showing that within minutes he could capture the inner essence of a person.

He has prosaically entitled the dark picture Holocaust Crowd Scene II, which massively measures 122 x 184 cms. It was painted in 2011.

Ben Uri chairman David Glasser said: “This visually and physically powerful important work by this greatly respected war artist, whose depictions of Bosnia are indelibly marked in our minds, adds a new dimension to the museum’s collections of works by artists who either perished, survived or were forced into exile by the Nazi regime…” It is part of the museum’s collection that ensures future generations understand the realities and the lessons of the Holocaust.

• Mary Fulbrook, professor of German history at London University, whose most recent award-winning book is entitled Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution, will give a talk on Passivity and Complicity in Nazi Germany on February 18 at Birkbeck College, London University, Room B34, Torrington Square, Bloomsbury.


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