Peter Howson is an artist who has spent much of his life “tussling with the beast inside”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Born in London in 1958 and brought up in Glasgow, he immediately “stood out” when he first began exhibiting his work in the mid-1980s. For one thing, he had been in the Army, an experience that “clearly did something terrible to him” and inspired more than a few of his earliest, already decidedly “bleak” pictures. Secondly, his paintings could hardly have been further from the tasteful, academic art fashionable at the time: rather, they depicted a frightening, ultra-masculine world dominated by violence and ugliness. And as this “tense, sweaty, unhappy, creepy and, eventually, rather brilliant” retrospective in Edinburgh shows, he has not mellowed with age.

The exhibition spans the length of Howson’s career. There are tortured self-portraits and scenes from the Bosnian conflict (where he served as Britain’s official war artist), along with the “thunderous” religious scenes that he has spent much of the past few decades creating. This is a “sweaty bar-room brawl” of a show bristling with “anger, self-pity, terror, rage and, yes, talent”. It is not for the faint-hearted. 

Throughout, Howson displays his “constant preoccupation with a kind of brutal masculinity”, said Duncan Macmillan in The Scotsman. Particularly “harrowing” are works created in response to his time in Bosnia, an experience that ultimately led to a breakdown, drink and drug dependence and the collapse of his marriage. Nevertheless, it produced some impressive pictures, notably his very “powerful” drawings of heads, in which “over-muscled flesh gives way to something more abstract”; the effect is “actually more visceral”. Howson found some solace in rehab and religion, but his “wild paintings” inspired by the latter suggest that Christianity, too, has been a “ferocious and terrifying experience” for him; there is “not much redemption here”. This is a glimpse into an “unrelievedly dark” world – and the exhibition quickly becomes “quite overwhelming”. One’s tolerance for such “brutal” imagery may well be stretched. 

Howson is “a one-man heavy metal band with the volume turned up to 11”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. His art is “a riotous roar of massive muscular bodies, faces like fists, emotions worn like football shirts”. It is also decidedly macho: indeed, aside from a typically unflattering nude portrait of his celebrity fan Madonna, all “grotesque muscles and twisted sinews”, there is scarcely a woman to be seen here. Howson’s “bombastic histrionics” may get a bit much at times, but his works prove “that excess is better than good taste”. This is “a claustrophobic, repetitive rant of a show” – but there’s no doubting the fact that “it stays with you”.

City Art Centre, Edinburgh (0131-529 3993, Until 1 October