The Art of Jonathan Bowden, volume 1, 1980–2007
London: The Spinning Top Club, 2007
The first time my wife saw Jonathan Bowden’s art she thought he was insane. I had some days before attended a meeting where he spoke about the German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his epic, 7-hour production Hitler: A Film from Germany. Due to engineering work on the railway network, I arrived late, in the midst of Lady Michele Renouf’s talk about freedom of speech, the Lisbon Treaty, and the European Constitution. At this time Bowden, who was due to speak next, was leaning on a windowsill, facing the audience. Clad in suit and tie, sporting a wooden pendant carved with a rune, and a pair of small, bottle-bottom spectacles, he stood there with a head of curly hair, arms crossed, and eyes closed, deep in thought. The room was hot, pre-Victorian, crammed to capacity with angry middle-aged men, compressed into tightly packed rows of hard coccyx-crunching chairs–stewing in their fury against the modern world.
As I sat down, a man in the front row, who had already asked a question, asked another. Bowden leapt like an attack dog and forcefully silenced the inquisitor. ‘Questions at the end, please!” he shouted. “Authoritarian men won’t have another’s will imposed upon them,” he said on a different occasion. His manner was harsh, loud, serious, unpleasant, overbearing. This is how I knew he was the chairman.
When his turn came to speak, his vast oral cavity exploded with a hurricane of decibels; the thermonuclear shockwave of intellectual verbiage swept over the heads of the congregated audience, stunning it into paralyzed silence. Bowden turned his head left, then right, then left, then right, his eyes closed, gesticulating, baring his teeth, roaring like a lion. Even if there was anyone present who did not understand his erudite diction, everyone knew where it was coming from: a place of Nietzschean ferocity, Doric hardness, primal purpose, pagan pride, ancient darkness, and unquenchable fury. The discharge of energy was inspiring, and motivated me to visit this man’s website.
It found he was a prolific writer and an artist with an especially rabid style. His paintings, done in acrylic (for speed), are chaotic mosaics of color, intense, expressionistic, and densely crisscrossed with sadistic lines. It is the work of a schizophrenic patient, who labors at night, hunched over his table, pen in fist, his face red, his eyes wide, perspiring, hyperventilating, furiously attacking the paper surface in an paroxysm of uncontrolled hatred and rage. Otherwise it is the work of an obsessive compulsive, who fills vast surfaces with incomprehensible patchworks and patterns that respect no rhyme or reason, who destroys as he creates, who accretes as he annihilates, cackles as he militates. The art is grotesque, primordial, and rudely contemptuous of bourgeois expectations. It is filled with ghoulish faces, deformity, evil, psychotic stares, lascivious leers, nightmarish sarcasm, and human monstrosity. The portraits offer nothing but a demonic freak show. Where there are women, the images are not flattering: they are obscene, vulgar, violently sexual. This is no derivation from the Classicist figurative tradition: when one looks at Bowden’s art one thinks of Marvel comic strips, blended with Edvard Munch, Otto Dix, and Jackson Pollock. (View a slideshow of Bowden’s paintings here.)
Bowden’s art is modern, or modernist, but he argues that it is no longer so, for what we class as “modern” art has already been around for well over a hundred years. This is obviously true, but all the same it enrages, perplexes, and horrifies some in Bowden’s political constituency: indeed, some years ago, he was vigorously attacked by a number of anonymous posters in Stormfront, in a manner that he later described as “semi-literate and scatological.” But while for some Bowden’s creations are another example of entartete Kunst, others rate it highly; views on its merits are polarized. In a subsequent response to his critics, Bowden wrote:
Once a classic early photographer like Edward Muybridge produced an interconnected series of images featuring Greco-Roman wrestlers and running horses, the world was forever changed. Fine art now had a choice–it either replicated photography badly or in a stylized way which was loyal to a tradition running from Rembrandt to Orpen or it contrived to do something else. What it did was to go inside the mind and tap all sorts of semi-conscious and unconscious ideas, fantasies, desires and imaginative forays. The point about this art is that it is highly personal and powerful because it comes from inside. This means that people often of a highly rigid and morally defensive character find this work heretical, blasphemous, evil and even degenerate. (Indeed the theory of degenerate art originates from the 1880’s when this change of direction took place).
He explained that “representational, classical, traditional and academic work has been taken over by cinema,” and that he sees the failure of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union to prevent painters and sculptors from producing modernist work as a confirmation of the dynamism of the modernist current. He added:
Turning to my own work, various currents are discernible. These are the demonic, strength and a concern with pure power, ugliness and fury as well as erotica and shape, or purely imaginative formulations. In my own mind the softer material balances the harsher, more violent and aggressive work. Nonetheless, I have also done a large number of relatively traditional pieces which hark back to classic art by Bosch, Rops, and Caravaggio. Some are also based on Hellenistic form. Obviously a subjective element intrudes into art but I believe that modernistic fury is the correct vehicle for elitist and hierarchical values.
The Art of Jonathan Bowden is the first of two volumes, collecting the 47-year-old artist’s work from 1980 to 2007. In total we have 179 paintings and 25 sketches. The pages are black and the text white, which is what works best with artwork of such vibrant colors. Sadly, it is a softcover edition and a few of the images are slightly out of focus.
Sadly also, there is no introduction or biographical essay: one goes from the table of contents straight to the art. The interaction between the latter and the former, however, provides an unexpected source of entertainment that compensates for these deficiencies, as it proves quite rewarding either to look at the title of a painting in the index and then find the corresponding painting or vice versa.
This is because the titles reflect an obvious, (in Bowden’s own words) “elitist, semi-transcendentalist, hieratic, non-dualist, neo-pagan, ‘politically incorrect’, and inegalitarian” sensibility, and, as Lasha Darkmoon has pointed out in her recent articles for The Occidental Observer, we do not find that very often in the contemporary art world. One cannot read titles like Against Greenpeace, An Apple a Day Keeps Fury at Bay, Depressed Human Reptile, Eugene Sue’s The Eternal Jew, Louisiana Lynching, Flying Vagina Head, Give Me 140 Million Dollars, God Plays with Balls, Happy Hellraiser, I am Disembowelled, Too Many Turkey Twizzlers, and not want to find out what Bowden visualized.
These are, of course, the quirkier titles. Others suggest a number of recurring themes: classical / mythological (Masked Acropolis, Olympia on Blue), demonic (Orange Lucifer, Lycanthropy Now), sexual (Napalm Blonde, Vulvic Head and Ear), fascistic (Adolf & Leni, Mussolini with Bi-Planes), among others.
Artistically unexplored among Bowden’s obsessions are his morbid fear of obesity, for example, and his troglodytic indifference to technology. At a recent event in the United States, I noticed Bowden, who on previous occasions had refused to eat anything at all, dined out of tiny dessert dishes. When questioned on his rather singular temperance, he explained that he comes from the West country, and that people from his part of the world have a tendency to grow sideways.
His worry, however, is wrapped into a certain morbidity of the imagination. At various points he expressed disappointment at the lack of examples of “brontosaurian obesity,” the witnessing of which he had been eagerly anticipating, not without a measure of horrified fascination. Perhaps this is because Bowden, like one Harry Stephen Keeler, appreciates human deformity and freakery of nature: “it adds to the fauna and flora,” he says.
As to his relationship with the electronic marvels of our age, Bowden admits to not owning a CD player, a DVD player, or even a color television; indeed, the communicates with the world via a mobile telephone that must be nearly a decade old–a geological era in technological terms. “I believe in planning your own obsolescence,” he argues.
I must admit I recognize a bit myself in this rather eccentric character. This is a man who likes extremes, and rushes to them faster than the speed of light the moment an idea is presented to him. Like me, he cartoonifies everything and everybody; he enjoys exaggeration, obscurity, exoticism, rarity, maximal expression–life is a comic strip; he can see humor in even the nadir of the Kali Yuga.
Bowden’s stern appearance (I say he has looked 40 since he was 18) is somewhat deceptive, but his art accurately reflects this personality profile: beneath the hyperchromatic energy there is a gothic sensibility, that is drawn to authors like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Bram Stoker–not forgetting the Irishman’s more obscure books–blended with an extroverted theatricality. Suddenly his suit and tie and heavy-soled, skull-crushing footwear and the van filled with corpses are not inconsistencies, but parts of an organic–and partly animalistic, partly inhuman–whole. They are consistent with the orator whose meanest and most gleeful insults are “BBC News reader” and “lib-er-alll!”
The Art of Jonathan Bowden will not please everyone and will not confirm the ordinary man in his beliefs (Bowden does not give a damn), but it is without a doubt interesting for those who revel in psychological extremity and would like an insight into the psyche of this Nietzschean beast.
Note: Many of Jonathan Bowden’s books can be purchased or downloaded for free from his website.
TOQ Online, November 30, 2009