An internationally known and respected artist during his lifetime, but somewhat overlooked and underestimated since his death, Charles Houghton Howard (1899-1978) is rightly celebrated in the first museum survey of his artistic work in over 70 years, entitled “Charles Howard: A Margin of Chaos.” The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), led by curator Apsara DiQuinzio, spent three years assembling over 75 exciting surrealist and abstract drawings and paintings by Howard and associated ephemera in a landmark exhibit that inspires a fresh look at this talented artist. Accompanying the stimulating show is a detailed and complete 128-page illustrated catalog by Ms. DiQuinzio.
It is fitting that BAMPFA is hosting this exhibition, since Howard was raised in Berkeley in a distinguished artistic family, headed by his father, UC Berkeley’s supervising architect, John Galen Howard (Hearst Greek Theatre, Doe Library, Boalt Hall, Wheeler Hall, Sather Gate and Tower). Charles Howard graduated from Berkeley High and UC Berkeley School of Journalism.
While traveling through Italy after dropping out of graduate school in 1922, Howard experienced the type of epiphany one usually reads about in books. Just north of Venice, he viewed an altarpiece by the Italian painter Giorgione (1478–1510), “Madonna and Child Between St. Francis and St. Nicasius,” and committed there and then to be a painter himself. Although he never had an art lesson, one can appreciate his serious, comprehensive and imaginative technique, even in his early works.
After starting his art career in New York, he settled in England in 1933 with his wife, English artist Madge Knight (1895-1974). The couple lived in or near London for many years, returning to the Bay Area only during World War II. The couple spent their last years in Bagni di Lucca, Italy, where they both died.
Howard spent most of his career painting in the Surrealist style. His first solo show was at New York’s Whitney Studio Club in 1926, the early forerunner of the Whitney Museum. He was a friend of Alexander Calder’s and exhibited with Calder, Giacometti, Matta, Tanguy, and Gorky at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in several important early Surrealist shows in the early 1930s. Howard also had a solo exhibition in London at the Guggenheim-Jeune Gallery in 1939, among other gallery shows there. His art was shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, in New York with those of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, and Wassily Kandinsky in 1942. The then named California Palace of the Legion of Honor organized the last retrospective of his work in 1946. Charles Howard’s art continued to be exhibited in solo and group shows through the early 1960s and is found in museums and private collections across the United States including SFMOMA, The Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Howard’s Surrealist paintings tend toward darker colors, with a center composition and a dynamic, three-dimensional structure surrounding it, often with a horizontal banner shape. One can also see typical Surrealist characteristics in his paintings, fascinating rounded bodily forms that seem to float, somewhat reminiscent of works by Miro, Dali and Picasso.
Yet Howard did not wish to be pigeon-holed, and worked in figuration and abstraction as well. Howard’s abstract technique is absolute in “First War Winter” (1940), which the then San Francisco Museum of Art chose as the winner of the Art Purchase Prize of the San Francisco Art Association Annual of 1940. While in San Francisco during World War II and working for the war effort, Howard lectured at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) and as one familiar with European art trends, influenced artists of the early Bay Area Abstract School, such as Clyfford Still, David Park and even perhaps, Richard Diebenkorn.
In his piece, “Dove Love,” painted at the height of his career in 1945, he used a banner with a center vertical line for balance. Curator Apsara DiQuinzio pointed out the lasting influence of Howard’s first adored altarpiece, “Madonna and Child Between St. Francis and St. Nicasius” in “Dove Love” in this work and a number of his other paintings.
Why is this exhibit subtitled ‘A Margin of Chaos”? Douglas MacAgy, curator of the then San Francisco Museum of Art wrote an essay in 1948 in which he referred to Howard’s work as it pertains to the “abyss which encompasses the unknowable — the “archetype” of “Chaos.” Curator Apsara DiQuinzio believes that Howard’s refusal to fit into any one artistic school as well as his life in England, while not being fully British, contributed to his recession from the public eye. This fine exhibit should once more bring Charles Howard to the forefront.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved.