Ghislaine Howard is a painter whose works directly transcribe the art of the past and her everyday life. Her work has been exhibited extensively and is held in collections including The Royal Collection.
Here she tells us more about her work, which will be shown as part of the forthcoming exhibition ‘Young Masters: Dialogues’ at Sphinx Fine Art, 12 – 24 October 2015.
What is it about the Young Masters concept that interests you most?
The idea of the Young Masters is an important one for me as it foregrounds the crucial sense of belonging and nurture that most artists need, the importance of making connections and continuing the heritage of the past. It is a simple but surprising fact that all art is actually contemporary (whenever it was made) as it can only ever be viewed in the present. Though much of my work is nourished by the past it is made for the present and looks to the future with optimism and hope. I share with Picasso, Degas, Cézanne, Rembrandt, Titian, Goya and all the artists I admire the belief that we are not alone and that our contribution to art is part of a continuing and necessary story of what it is to be human.
Can you explain to us what your work is about?
My work is about shared human experience. My painting celebrates, without sentimentality or overt personal referencing, what Paul Klee called the ‘dark joy of living’.
Which artist/s are you most inspired by?
All of those mentioned above, but when I walk into the National gallery or the Prado and look around I feel as did Ron Kitaj ‘These are my people’. They are old friends who reach out to inspire and console. Making drawings from Rembrandt, Poussin or Delacroix, I am not attempting to imitate the way in which they paint but to tap into their understanding of the human condition and the gestures they have found to crystallise all those emotions we share. Amongst the artists of today, I admire particularly Marlene Dumas, Frank Auerbach, Thomas Ruff, Luc Tuymans and of course Gerhard Richter
Can you tell us something about your background?
I was one of five children and the only girl. My father was an actor and a talented if disinclined painter and musician. He had grown up in a Northeast pit village with a strong tradition of singing and performance so there was always music in the house. My mother is Irish – a great story teller with a flair for colour and design and a penchant for knocking down walls to let in the light. I remember vividly coming home from school to see her, pickaxe in hand, standing in a pile of rubble.
I live with my husband, the art historian and painter Michael Howard and one of the great joys of my life has been our shared passion for painting.
What inspired you to become an artist and where did you train?
As a very small child, I was shown a reproduction of a Van Gogh drawing by my father, depicting an old man sitting by the embers of a dying fire, his head in his hands. I remember being so moved by the drawing that it made me weep. My father told me that Van Gogh was an artist who painted feelings and I decided there and then that that was what I wanted my own drawings to be about. My parents used to buy prints from Boots, so as well as Van Gogh, I became familiar with works by Gauguin and Matisse from an early age and I wanted to do what they did. I used to draw all the time on the back of my dad’s used scripts- old people, mothers with babies, birds and animals- if someone said that my drawings had ‘feeling’- I was happy.
I studied Fine Art at Newcastle University and in my first year, enjoyed the challenges of making art in different ways but knew that what I really needed to do was find a way of making figurative art that would have a visceral and emotional impact. The reading of Cézanne’s letters, Edvard Munch’s writings and David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon were tremendously inspirational. My first significant body of work was shown at Manchester Art Gallery in 1993 and dealt with pregnancy, birth and motherhood. This was for me a personal experience but also a universal one and shockingly, one that had rarely been dealt with in Western art. The exhibition was described as groundbreaking..
If you weren’t an artist what would you be?
Utterly miserable and impossible to live with!
What is your greatest achievement as an artist to date?
There have been a number of these including the showing of 365 of my daily paintings at Imperial War Museum North and Manchester Art Gallery and seeing my Stations of the Cross/The Captive Figure sequence installed in some of the most beautiful and glorious cathedrals in Britain.
However, perhaps the most moving experience for me was in 2013 when my drawing from the Whitworth Art Gallery’s collection, Pregnant Self Portrait was the centrepiece of a major British Museum exhibition entitled Ice Age Art/ the Arrival of the Modern Mind. I was the only living artist in the exhibition which featured some of the earliest representations of the human figure, made (probably by women) over 30,000 years ago. To feel that my charcoal drawing made only 25 years before was continuing this profound human need to image ourselves was a humbling and spine tingling experience. The only other more modern works featured in the exhibition were by Picasso, Matisse, Henry Moore and Giacometti-all men!
What are your plans for the future?
To keep faith with painting. I am very excited by the project that I am engaged with at the moment in association with my husband Michael, concerning the Seven Acts of Mercy which will reach completion in May 2016. This project began after I encountered two small Medieval paintings in Madrid and has been nourished by my practice of making small daily paintings in response to news media images. I am working towards seven monumental canvases each of which will crystallise an act of mercy- giving drink to the thirsty or welcoming the stranger etc. Like the works of many of the old masters I seek to find and capture those particular gestures that reach across cultural, religious and social barriers in a way that language cannot. I believe that art has the capability to help heal the divisions of our fractured world and to operate as a force for change. This ambition is at the heart of my 365 Series and will underpin the Seven Acts of Mercy project.