Under a colorless sky on a rainy spring day in Manhattan, the traffic lights in Chinatown sway in the gusty wind. Inside a rented storefront studio, its window shuttered to passers-by, Peter Doig is holed up alone, intent on finishing a group of paintings in time for next Saturday’s opening of his survey show at the Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh. In the back, Mr. Doig has jury-rigged some bedsheets — he has slept there on occasion — to catch the rain leaking through a skylight broken by a would-be intruder.
It seems a scruffy setting for an artist whose highly prized paintings, often haunting renderings of lone figures in landscapes or boats adrift, command millions at auction. But a little rain doesn’t bother Mr. Doig. In Trinidad, his primary residence for the past 11 years, he built a studio with windows that don’t close, and he is accustomed to arriving in the morning to find paintings blown over.
The 54-year-old Mr. Doig, Scottish by birth, Trinidadian and Canadian by upbringing, is a restless sort. Last winter he quietly slipped into New York and, save for trips to visit his family and to teach in Düsseldorf, Germany, has been painting there since. He brought with him several large, half-finished canvases, rolled up.
“Starting absolutely from scratch is a kind of nightmare for me — terrifying,” Mr. Doig said, his sinuses perpetually congested from their proximity to paint thinners. “It’s rare that I have a fluid start-to-finish experience with a painting, sadly. I accept the lolls, even though they’re frustrating. And I don’t worry too much about paintings looking really awful.”
The paintings take Trinidad as their ostensible subject, but Mr. Doig says the distance has been a help, not a hindrance, in part because his work is about “joining bits of memory together” and not strictly re-creating a scene. “If just outside your door you’re seeing what you’re painting, maybe there’s too much information,” he said. On one wall, a towering, hazy seascape features the small figure of a boy — based on a photograph, now lost, of Mr. Doig’s 6-year-old son, the youngest of his five children — standing in a boat, nearly overwhelmed by nature. Another canvas borrows the two winsome Scotties from the logo of Black & White Scotch whisky. “I might finish this, but it’s not going to look anything like this,” he said. “I think I made them too big.”
His method relies heavily on removing paint, as well as on chance and experimentation. “Sometimes you get so frustrated, you end up washing off or scraping off what you spent hours or days applying,” he said. “By going backward, you see something you could have never achieved by going forward.”
A Doig can feel like a single frame of a movie or the fragment of a dream remembered upon waking. Like recurring dreams, Mr. Doig returns to motifs again and again. “There’s only so much that’s relevant to me,” he said, rubbing his short, reddish-gray beard.
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate in London and a longtime admirer, compares his works to short stories. “There is always a rather elusive mystery,” Mr. Serota said. “Nothing is quite as it seems to be.” Or as the British artist David Harrison, a friend since art school, put it: “There is always a narrative, and the fact there is a narrative is good enough. You don’t have to know what the narrative is.”
In a third, nearly 10-foot-tall work, a sheet of tracing paper bearing a sketch of a man wearing a wet suit and holding a fishing spear is pinned to the canvas. “The placement of the figure has to be very strong within the composition,” Mr. Doig said, pointing out the many thumbtack holes. “The figure becomes a magnet to draw the viewer into the painting and hold you, or it becomes a cipher. It draws you in, and then you forget about it.”
Though Mr. Doig uses photographs as source material — he shoots incessantly with his cellphone — his paintings tend to veer dramatically from the original. In this case, Mr. Doig was kayaking when he came across two men in a fishing boat. “One had a spear gun and a huge fish, so we paddled over,” he said. “It seemed quite ancient.” In subsequent studies, Mr. Doig referred to a 1950s image he found on the Internet of a man on a rock and transformed the traditional Trinidadian pirogue into a more generic green craft. He also turned the second, seated figure vaguely into a woman.
Mr. Doig’s canvases are unabashedly beautiful, a trait often viewed with suspicion in the contemporary art world but for which he makes no apologies. Keith Hartley, chief curator and deputy director of the Scottish National Galleries, said: “Even though they’re beautiful, they’re still full of ideas. What is wrong with being enamored of the beauty around you?”
The surfaces of late are flat, fashioned of oils melted into wispy-thin layers of color. “Amazing the opposition I had to thinner paint,” Mr. Doig said. “People really love thick paint. But what does that mean? Maybe buying thin painting makes them think they’re being ripped off?”
His self-deprecation aside, sales are not a problem for Mr. Doig. His “White Canoe” sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $11.3 million, at the time an auction record for a living European artist (now held by Gerhard Richter). In February, “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine,” a dense web of leafless branches obscuring a house from above, went for about $12 million at Christie’s. His new paintings sell for $300,000 to $3 million.
The Edinburgh survey, focusing on the past decade, is Mr. Doig’s first major show in the country of his birth, and he admitted to being “intrigued to see what Scots make of my Scottishness.” As a child, he was sneered at as a “limey” in Canada, only to be called a “yank” when he was living in London. Fittingly, the survey will travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in his other homeland.
Wanderlust may be encoded in his DNA. His middle name is Marryat, after an ancestor, the adventure writer Captain Frederick Marryat, whose well-to-do family permitted him to join the Royal Navy only after several foiled attempts to run away to sea. Mr. Doig’s grandfather left Scotland to seek his fortune in Sri Lanka, and his father uprooted his wife and infant son from Wales, where he worked as an accountant, upon seeing an ad for a job in Trinidad. Later, the family moved to Canada.
“If it’s in your blood, it’s impossible not to think the grass is maybe greener elsewhere,” Mr. Doig said. “Everything seems temporal. I went to nine different schools and never lived in a house for more than three years growing up.”
An indifferent student, he lit out at 17 for Western Canada, where he worked as a roughneck on gas rigs and slept in barns and on abandoned farms, settings that would figure in his early work. The grueling labor reshaped his body into the powerful build he has today and also taught him he didn’t want to work on rigs for the rest of his life. During his downtime, he drew.
It’s a period in his life that has recently come under scrutiny. A man named Robert Fletcher is suing him for refusing to authenticate a painting Mr. Fletcher insists he bought from a teenage Mr. Doig for $100. Mr. Fletcher claims to have been Mr. Doig’s parole officer after the artist served time for drug possession.
Mr. Doig laughingly called the suit “spurious” and denied not only having been incarcerated and painting the landscape in question but also making any paintings on canvas before art school. Even if the picture were his, he dismissed it as a “schoolboy painting,” not worth more than $10,000 — and that only as a “curiosity.” Not long after returning home, Mr. Doig left again in 1979 for Saint Martins School of Art in London. He quickly made a mark as a pure painter in an age when painting was grossly out of style.
With influences ranging from Post-Impressionists and Symbolists to the Chicago Imagists and modern cinema, “he has shown it’s possible to make very powerful paintings at the beginning of the 21st century,” Mr. Serota said.
Though the ’90s brought Mr. Doig acclaim, including a Turner Prize nomination, in 2002 he moved to Trinidad. He said he needed to escape the art world’s intensity and wanted to give his children a taste of life elsewhere. “I didn’t anticipate staying as long as I have,” he admitted.
Mr. Serota said the self-exile has been critical both to Mr. Doig’s state of mind and his art. “Trinidad’s warmth, its luxuriant vegetation, heat and color have all burned their way into his paintings,” he said. Mr. Hartley pointed to Mr. Doig’s compositions growing less “claustrophobic — screens of trees, falling snow,” and more open.
In the studio, Mr. Doig was growing antsy. Paint dries slowly in the New York air, compared with the tropics, and he was running out of time. “Back to the task at hand,” he said, brushing his hand along a canvas’s bluish-purple surface. “What I hate the most and also what I like best.”
In Edinburgh, Peter Doig's imminent exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery is being billed as a kind of homecoming. They even have a "Doig menu" available at the gallery restaurant. Given that he was born in the city, but left when he was two, and that his art has always been informed by his inveterate desire to keep moving from place to place – he currently lives in Trinidad, following two long stints in London separated by a spell in Canada – it must feel odd to suddenly find himself referred to as a Scottish artist.
"It does a bit," he says, grinning. "When I was growing up, I never felt that I belonged anywhere because we never lived in a house for more than three months. That's all I knew and that's why I don't really belong anywhere. Then again, I do feel Scottish in some way. Maybe it's to do with visiting my grandparents here every summer as a child, but I am aware of my Scottish ancestry. It's there all right, but it would be pushing it to label me a Scottish painter. Or, indeed, an anywhere painter."
Yet a sense of place is one of the key determinants of Doig's art. Since his move from London to Trinidad in 2002, his paintings have become richer in hue and even more vivid in their evocation of atmosphere and memory, both his own personal memory and that of the artists his work calls to mind, from Cézanne and Daumier to the German expressionists of the 1920s. In one of the smaller rooms, a recent big work, entitled Paragrand, features three silhouetted figures playing cricket, each one receding more into a vivid, indeterminate backdrop where sand, sea and foliage merge into one. It seems to vibrate with intensity even from a distance, a huge, flat swath of shimmering orange at the centre, altering all the other colours around it.
If Doig's paintings have always been far-out in their hallucinatory charge, the most recent ones are even further out: things observed in the real world are transformed by the act of painting into something approaching dreamscapes. In the exhibition catalogue, Stéphan Aquin describes Doig as a painter of "elsewhere" and if the artist has an abiding subject, that is surely it: the porous hinterland between the real and the heightened, between acute observation and deep, transformative imagination.
"Yes, I guess that has always been the case," he says, nodding thoughtfully. "It may, in fact, be the object of the exercise; to paint elsewhere in every sense of the world. It's still an escape for me, painting, so it also takes me elsewhere. I don't think I would do it otherwise."
It is an escape that has pitched him into the big league when it comes to the art market. One of his signature works, White Canoe, briefly held the record price for a painting sold in auction by a living European artist, when it fetched £5.73m in 2007. He had sold it 10 years earlier for £1,000. "I still have the receipt somewhere," he says, smiling ruefully and shaking his head. "It was shocking to me when it happened, and it still feels like it had nothing to do with me. I feel very separate from that world. I used to know every single person I sold a painting to, but now I have no idea who buys them. It's a little odd if you think about it."
Tanned, healthy looking and affable, Doig, 54, is relaxing company, but one senses a restless energy beneath the calm. He speaks quickly and quietly, his accent now unplaceable, but is reticent when it comes to any subject other than painting. After wandering through the gallery looking at the works that have already been hung, we are sitting in a high-ceilinged room among huge wooden packing crates and recently unloaded canvases, some of which are propped against the walls. He tells me cheerfully that three of the newest works have not arrived yet, as they were only finished a few days ago. "I would never finish a painting if I didn't have a deadline," he adds, laughing, and you can sense that the curators have been in a bit of a fret about the possibility of an empty wall or two.
The show's apposite title, No Foreign Lands, comes from another itinerant Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, who in his book The Silverado Squatters observed that "there are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign." It is a quote that sums up Doig's attitude to place, which, whether Montreal or Port of Spain, seeps dream-like into his paintings. Following on from the Tate's big retrospective in 2008, the curator of the Edinburgh show, Keith Hartley, has wisely chosen to focus on the last 10 years of Doig's work, beginning with a few paintings that the artist began while still living in Clerkenwell, London, and then finished during his first few years in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago. "They are in-between paintings in a way," says Doig "and, in a way, they echo what happened when I first went to Montreal. I immediately started making London paintings. It's as if memories suddenly spring up from the place I have just left and I have to work through them to get to that elsewhere."
Doig moved to Trinidad in 2002 with his wife and five children – four daughters and a son – having become intoxicated by the energy of Port of Spain while on an artist's residency there with fellow painter Chris Ofili. In 2005, Ofili moved there too, and the pair seem to be the nexus of a burgeoning art community that has grown up around Doig's film club, which convenes in a large room next to his studio every Thursday night to watch and discuss arthouse movies over cold beers. When he isn't painting, Doig thrives on company and pours his energy into kayaking, cycling and racketball. In the 1980s, in London, he played ice hockey for the Romford Raiders, so there is obviously a competitive streak lurking beneath that easygoing exterior.
Like his Sri Lankan-born father before him, he has led a peripatetic life and seems to thrive on it. Doig senior worked as a shipping clerk, but was a keen painter of mainly abstract landscapes in his spare time. His son seemed set to follow in his footsteps when he started painting, aged 17, to counter the sense of dislocation he felt while working as a labourer on a gas drilling rig in the vast flatness of the Canadian prairies. It was there, too, that he first had the notion that he might go to art school in London, a place he was drawn to more because of the punk songs he was listening to than any artistic ambition. He duly did a foundation course at Wimbledon college, before being accepted by St Martin's, and, for a few formative years in the early 1980s, he lived the bohemian life of the struggling young artist in a flat in King's Cross.
"It was quite a mad, rough place back then, full of oddballs and artists. Shane MacGowan lived just around the corner. I became friends with Jem (Finer) so I used to go to gigs by the Pogues and they would come to my shows. There was a bit of a scene there and just down the road in Warren Street, Boy George and the Body Map fashion designers were all living in squats. It was a different city, then, you could easily find cheap places to live and studios to work in," he says, echoing a sentiment also expressed to me recently by another artist, Gary Hume. "We took all those things for granted and now they are gone. It does feel like you really have to be wealthy in London now to have that kind of freedom. It's a shame. I think young artists need the time and space to waste time until they find a voice."
Doig says that he "found his voice at St Martin's" even though he was initially "quite intimidated by the people there and their work and the general air of cool that hung over the place." In his first year, he spent a lot of time and energy painting "urban narratives that I made without caring if I painted in gloss or oil or spray paint if I needed to. I was anti-painting in a way. It was an attitude that I can see now was less about making paintings and more about making images." Despite this, St Martin's was the first place where people started responding positively to his work and he remembers "this sudden feeling of excitement that meant I didn't even want to miss a day or slow down".
After graduating, he returned to Canada, living in Montreal, "suddenly adrift from the support system in London", yet obsessively drawn to making London paintings. "I remember working for ages on a painting of a man walking down the street with a pig underneath his arm. That was definitely a King's Cross painting," he laughs, "It even looked like a Pogues song." Chastened, he returned to London and enrolled, aged 31, as a mature student on an MA course at Chelsea School of Art. There, he entered a milieu in which painting was still the thing, but, by then, the British art world had changed utterly and the era of the Young British Artists and grandstanding conceptualism had made London the art capital of the world. "I was older than the YBA generation, who were emerging and I didn't share their attitude, because I had already worked through all that at St Martin's."
He still remembers the sniffy reception his new painterly paintings received from other artists when they were first exhibited. "I was somehow selected for the Barclays young artist award at the Serpentine gallery in 1991, which was made up of the most promising artists from the London MA shows. That's when I realised I was out on a limb. My work looked very different to everything else on show and, not just that, but some of the artists did not want to show their work in the same space as me. They obviously thought my paintings were some sort of dreadful throwback or somehow not serious enough or absolute kitsch."
Lesser souls would have withered under this wave of contempt, but at Chelsea he had "watched and learned" and emerged with a newfound confidence that was self-liberating. "For the first time, I knew what I didn't want to be, which was a lyrical painter. I started exploring paint as material and that somehow freed my imagination." In his studio in London, he completed a series of "Canadian paintings" – ski slopes, back roads, cabins and houses half-obscured by trees or blizzards of pinky-white snow – that were the first real signal of his singular talent. He was looking, he says, for "an image that is not about a reality, but one that is somehow in between the actuality of the scene and something that is in your head".
He had found a style and, ever since, his paintings have been a robust reponse to the lingering question: why does painting still matter? Doig has answered it, as Keith Hartley notes, by "looking back and realising that there is a lot to be retrieved from the history of painting that can inform painting today. He has an extraordinary visual memory which coalesces with his personal memories when he paints. So, an incident that he witnessed can be transformed by the interaction of all these elements into a painting that possesses an extraordinary resonance."
In the past, that resonance has sometimes tended towards the hallucinatory, even the hallucinogenic. Doig has said that he took LSD as a teenager and a painting like the knowingly titled Blotter is charged with that heightened, fractured, but pinpoint-clear way of seeing that anyone who has taken the drug will immediately recognise. In 2003, the art critic and co-editor of Frieze magazine, Jennifer Higgie, wrote of his paintings. "Although they throb with the rich surfaces of the physical world, they make you think of things and states of mind that cannot be touched and rarely described." That is still the case, though in an altogether different way.
When he moved to Trinidad 11 years ago, Doig was all too aware of what he calls "the problem of exoticising the other". He grows thoughtful when I press him on this dilemma. "Well, a big part of my work is about what is permissible to paint. Not just in terms of painting tradition, but in terms of a world that you live in as an outsider, but don't fully understand. And that becomes a much bigger, trickier question when applied to the post-colonial world."
Many of the recent paintings he has made in Trinidad are embedded with clues about the vexed history of the place as well as the history of painting the exotic, from Gauguin to Picasso. A shimmering sense of otherness still characterises the work but that is often to do with the hallucinatory harshness of the Caribbean sunlight or the sudden equatorial onset of nightfall, which, he says, still sounding amazed, "drops like a black curtain on the place, altering the atmosphere".
His recent night paintings are sensual, mysterious and sometimes vaguely threatening. Faces take on the aspect of carnival masks or ghostlike figures emerge out of dark trees. Wraith-like figures stare – or, in one instance, glare menacingly – out of the paintings at the viewer as if interrupted during some clandestine undertaking. Often, there are several versions of the same scene, each one shifting in tone and suggestion: a glowering man he came upon "throttling a pelican" on a beach in Trinidad becomes a figure dragging a fishing net; a drunk French peasant, carrying a bottle in one hand and holding on to a lamppost with the other becomes, in a much bigger painting, a haloed figure resembling Van Gogh. I thought I saw Shane MacGowan in another version of the same scene, but Doig assured me the resemblance was "coincidental", and that it was actually "an amalgam of myself and a drunk on an old Parisian postcard".
Old postcards have become a fertile fund of source material for Doig alongside found photographs and latterly, collages and cut-outs. "I'm not a life painter. The silhouette is more and more important to me so I often cut out figures from postcards or photographs. I think if the silhouette is right, the painting is going in the right direction. If the figures are awkward in a wrong way, it's unconvincing, but if they are awkward in an interesting way, it somehow works."
That seems like a pretty good description of his later work: paintings that are awkward in an interesting way. "I think it's part of it, for sure. But there are all sorts of other things at work. I mean, it's a hard thing to do, painting. Especially finishing a painting. The years I have spent in my studio, days and days, and hours and hours. You get into some sort of state, for sure, a kind of altered state where your own memories and observations come up unedited. It's not logical. Its not intellectual. I think that's why I have no real memory of how I made them," he says, looking around at the paintings on the wall. "It's great seeing them again. It allows me to look at them and try to figure out how I got to that place. No matter how many times I do it, it really is a mystery to me."
This year is a big one for Peter Doig, a Trinidad-based painter known for his exotic expressionistic landscapes. From August 3 to November 3, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh—where the artist was born— is mounting “Peter Doig | No Foreign Lands,” an impressive survey of works from the past decade. Admirers on this side of the Atlantic will have their chance to see the exhibition in early 2014, when it arrives at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In the meantime, fans in New York City can get their fix at the Michael Werner Gallery, which unveils a show of his early paintings on November 7.
Peter Doig is one of the most highly regarded and internationally renowned painters working today. This weekend, a new exhibition of his work opens in Edinburgh.
Born in Scotland in 1959, he lived in Trinidad and Canada before moving to London in the late 1970s. In 1983 he received a BA from St Martins School of Art, and in 1990 an MA from Chelsea School of Art. Soon after the latter graduation, his work began to be snapped up by collectors, including Charles Saatchi.
In 1994, Doig was nominated for the Turner Prize. Then, in 2002, having established himself as a creator of paintings highly desired by the denizens of the contemporary art scene, Doig left London for Trinidad.
His island home is a recurring motif in his recent work. An inventive style and sensuous palette sets him apart from the conceptualism dominating much contemporary art; you won’t find any flashing bulbs, unmade beds or pickled sheep here. Rather, a passion for the opportunities still offered by painting locates him in a long line of great colourists such Gauguin, Matisse and Hopper.
No Foreign Lands, an exhibition charting the last ten years of Doig’s career, opens at the Scottish National Gallery this weekend, with some 200 works on show.
PETER DOIG’S paintings are often in the news. Since 2007, when his “White Canoe” sold at Sotheby’s for £5.7m ($11.2m), then a record for a living European artist, his works have consistently sold for staggering prices. But the auction hype and print reproductions do a disservice, turning his paintings into lacklustre symbols of a frothy market. Indeed, little prepares viewers for the experience of seeing these canvasses in person. They are remarkable: epic, sumptuously colourful and often mesmerisingly beautiful.
Many have been included in “No Foreign Lands”, a survey of Mr Doig’s later paintings and works on paper, which opens at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh on August 3rd. Most of the works in this exhibition—his first big one in Scotland—are from his time in Trinidad, where he has lived with his family since 2002. Born in 1959 in Edinburgh, he grew up in Trinidad and Canada, and studied art in London. But a brief spell back in Trinidad in 2000 proved inspiring. Visions of the Caribbean island kept cropping up in his work, so he decided to move there. The show takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” This neatly captures Mr Doig’s peripatetic life and outsider’s eye.
“Visually, sonically, it is a fascinating place,” says Mr Doig during a break from hanging the show. Affable and unexpectedly humble, he marvels at how Trinidad’s urban and natural worlds rub up against each other, creating odd juxtapositions. Unlike his earlier landscapes of Canada, with their crisp and often snowy wooded scenes, his island paintings feel more lush and humid, in hues of pavement-baking ochre, grassy greens, inky blues and black. Lonely canoes glide along still bodies of water; barely clothed kids play cricket; a lone man carries a dead pelican. The images feel like memories, caught in a realm between dreams and wakefulness.
With their impressionistic brushstrokes, inventive colours and exotic subjects, these paintings invite comparisons with Paul Gauguin, who similarly fled Europe’s stuffiness for an island idyll. But Mr Doig’s works pay tribute to all of his heroes. A man walking along a pavement in “Lapeyrouse Wall” (2004) evokes the sun-bleached stillness of Edward Hopper. Small boats drifting on dark seas at night recall the lurid gloom of Edvard Munch. His expressive brushwork summons Edouard Manet; the flat planes of background colour nod to Henri Matisse.
All of this is distinctly unstylish. Painting—and certainly figurative painting—has long been deemed passé, a medium too tired to comment on these complicated times. Mr Doig came of age in London at the same time as the Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, most of whom prefer irony over paint. Yet he chuckles at the thought that he is working in a so-called “dead” medium. “Who says these things, really?”
The show in Edinburgh, which will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts Montreal in 2014, is arranged thematically. One room is dedicated to his use of geometric shapes, another considers his approach to colour. Alongside Mr Doig’s large canvasses are a number of smaller studies—prints, drawings—in which he works through his ideas. A single image of, say, a girl in a tree will inspire a series of interpretations in different colours and styles. Vitrines display the ephemera he uses for visual ideas—many of his paintings are sparked by personal photographs. He rarely paints a single work start to finish, but rather “flits from one thing to the next”, teasing out motifs and moods in a process that can take years.
A whiff of lavender pervades the gallery with his newest work. These paintings are “hot off the easel”, jokes Keith Hartley, chief curator at the Scottish National Gallery (the artist uses lavender oil as a solvent). Mr Doig confesses that deadlines create the best conditions for him to paint, and that he has “no qualms hanging or transporting paintings that are still wet”.
For Mr Doig the hardest part is beginning a painting—a challenge made harder still by the high prices his works command at auction (a world he dismisses as “a game, really”). “The easier the conditions are to make a painting, the harder it is to make a good painting,” he says. “No one can help you. It’s still all down to you.”
There is a painting in the terrific Peter Doig retrospective at the National Gallery of Scotland that shows a palm-fringed beach in high summer, waves sparkling, sun blazing, sand stretching into the distance beneath a scintillating sky – or so it seems. In fact, the picture is almost entirely blank. What you see is a great expanse of raw canvas into which faint traces of oil have seeped here and there, leaving only the vaguest hint of fronds, shoreline and glinting foam as the tide recedes. The rest is all in your mind.
This is a picture of a mirage that has the characteristics of a mirage in itself; you have to squint to see the image (such as it is) in the hazy surface of the canvas, and the more you look the more it disappears. It is a beautiful conceit, doubly so because the paint also mimics the very thing it describes – moisture evaporating into sand. Doig painted it in Trinidad, where he has lived for the past decade or so, after a peripatetic life moving between Edinburgh, London and Toronto. Half of the paintings in this show have travelled all the way from this strange and sun-beaten island.
A bird hurtles like an arrow into a dark ocean, roiled and glowing like St Elmo's fire; together they act upon the mind like some frightening augury. A diver stands against a cobalt sky in his orange wetsuit, the harpoon in his hand irresistibly recalling Moby-Dick. His feet are visible inside the canoe, transparent as the water on which it floats yet bearing a veiled woman to some unseen shore. This world is ancient and modern, like a myth; above it, the moon hangs upside down.
The mystery these paintings transmit is part of their content; and nor is it meant to be solved. One looks at Doig's mesmerising pictures, with their complex surfaces – diaphanous, scumbled, stippled, stained – and straight into an irreducible enigma. Every scene implies some memory that cannot be dislodged, tinged with elusive significance; and his genius is for making these memories appear to belong to both himself and the viewer.
Sometimes the scene is distanced: screened behind trees or falling snow, or separated from us by a stretch of dark river. Sometimes it feels as if there once was an explanation – how this child got up into the tree by night in her white pyjamas, why that man is holding a struggling pelican – but the origins of the tale have been lost. There is a marvellous image here of a dark figure playing ping pong, knee-deep in a forest somewhere by the ocean. There is no opponent and no ball, so that one might imagine him there for ever, still involved in a game that has neither begun nor ended – the lonely ghost of a player.
Doig has a tremendous gift for coining forms. It is no overstatement to say that some of the paintings in Edinburgh are classics by now – the two costumed figures standing sentry before a jewelled wall are immediately recognisable by their consolidated shoulders and hats; the canoe he's painted over and again that's almost become his motif. Here it is, becalmed on a stretch of burning blue water, carrying a bearded man who could be the Ancient Mariner or a hippy; and here it is again, near Trinidad, transporting five spectral figures away into the future, or is it the past?
These forms and figures have gradually become characters in the narrative of his work. A show on this scale, and in these grand galleries with their long sightlines, allows one to see this as never before. Where Doig used to work with photographs, he is now painting the world around him – and still the pictorial ideas keep coming, and still the images slip into one's mind like potent archetypes painted in dazzling colours. Doig has been compared to Bonnard, Matisse and, of course, Gauguin, in his own Caribbean Tahiti. What he has in common with them is not colour, or form, or the insistent flatness of post-impressionism. It is the one thing needful: originality.
Just up the road, the Fruitmarket Gallery has a beautiful show by the Mexican Gabriel Orozco which centres entirely on circles. A jubilation of black discs, a waltz of red-blue circles, a cascade of dazzling dots: there are paintings, prints, drawings and even a kind of aerial sculpture. Some of the most captivating works take the form of sheets of transparent acetate suspended between glass where the painted circles – pale as bubbles, or dark as night – float in thin air, alien bodies hovering in space, creating the most unexpected reflections and shadows.
For Orozco, the circle is not just a motif but a way of making and thinking. A movement of the hand becomes a planet, the whirl of an inky finger describes extreme speed. An ancient stone, incised with circles, is a sculpted drawing (nature's own football). The momentary reflection of a ball on water is the measurement of time: a lunar eclipse.
Circles breed and proliferate. Discs burst like blossom or scatter like raindrops. They march, dilate, vibrate on white paper, always keeping themselves to themselves. One starts to see the properties of this global shape with new eyes: the way one or more circles can stamp, flicker, radiate or bounce. The sheer motility of a circle, its endless self-contained flow: it is the essence of perpetual motion.
Orozco has an astonishing photograph of a bubble casting its shadow in the Mexican desert – the ellipsis spectral and yet somehow substantial, like a human cell beneath a microscope. The world is wondrous in his art. Energetic yet serene, delicate yet charged, this is a tonic of a show.
At Inverleith House the furniture has come alive. There are lip-smacking lightshades, comical chairs and tables that perform the hokey-cokey. Black lightbulbs cast a baleful glow. Paintings turn into sculptures, sculptures turn into furniture and outside in the gardens a concert party floats among the lily pads like some water-borne performance, except that the musicians are absent.
All these works – by Sarah Lucas, Albert Oehlen, Douglas Gordon and others – are collaborations with the late Austrian maverick Franz West, who believed in the absolute liberty of art. The experience is a free-for-all, late-flowering surrealism crossed with haywire theatricality in an exuberant mash-up. Look out for the hat on a pole, or is it a devil-supping spoon? This is the exhibition as funhouse.
Its appallingly bleak opposite is currently taking place at Summerhall, the converted Victorian veterinary school, in what may prove to be the most controversial art event of the year (it hadn't yet opened to the public when I saw it).
Conceived by that darkest of artists, Gregor Schneider, whose houses of horror have shocked gallery-goers across the world, it is a labyrinth of white rooms into which visitors are released at five-minute intervals. Standard art procedure, or so it seems – there will be naked lightbulbs, you'll find your way out, probably just where you came in.
Except that the sound of casual conversation lures you rapidly to the exit, faintly exasperated that it is all over so quickly. Whereupon you find yourself in a dark room, the wall faintly sticky, as if with sweat, confronted by a group of people. It would be quite unfair on the performers, who are black, to say who they are or how they respond to your presence, because their task is so uniquely demanding and its value lies entirely upon the sudden shock. But exploitation, imprisonment, injustice and segregation will at the very least come to mind.
I was so upset for the performers, and their wellbeing, that I may not have been the ideal viewer for Süßer Duft (Sweet Scent), which struck me as profoundly manipulative (it is just asking to be praised as powerful, uncompromising, deeply disturbing and so on). But the manipulation is entirely efficient. Nobody leaving that dark basement can escape the overwhelming sense – be it social, political, psychological or emotional – of anxiety and distress.
Everywhere is home to Peter Doig, which is why his pictures take you to a strange place, he tells Susan Mansfield
Packing crates the size of small houses sit in almost every room at the Scottish National Gallery, while around them buzzes a swarm of art handlers, couriers, curatorial staff. The installing of Peter Doig’s exhibition is a big event, and all hands are on deck.
In the midst of all of this is Doig himself, an island of stillness, standing, looking, in front of a painting which has just arrived from MoMA in New York. He moves in close and looks a bit more. “I forget how I make things,” he says, quietly. “This is an opportunity to look at paintings, just reflect on them, to make connections between things.” He gives a wry half-smile. “It would be great to be able to buy a few of your own works.”
Doig, 54, is tall, athletic and speaks with a soft North American burr (much of his youth was spent in Canada). In a rare effusive moment, he exclaims over the “magnificent rooms” of the former RSA building – “Some of the best rooms in the British Isles for paintings.” He is slightly bemused by the fuss: his show is a major coup for National Galleries of Scotland and the press is lined up to interview him.
In the past decade, Doig has entered the big league. He had long been respected, critically acclaimed, credited with making painting fresh in an era of conceptual cool. Art students loved him. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1994. But he wasn’t a celebrity until one of his paintings sold at auction for £5.7m in 2007, four times its expected price. A 25-year retrospective at Tate Britain in 2008 – his first ever one-man museum show in Britain – helped cement his reputation. Now a new painting can fetch over £1 million.
Doig has always been hard to pin down, a painter without borders. He was born in Edinburgh – and remembers many summer holidays spent with his grandparents in Lower Dublin Street – but his childhood was in Trinidad and Canada. His family moved frequently: he went to nine different schools, studied art in London, and now divides his time between Trinidad, New York and Germany, where he has a teaching post.
“When I’m in Canada, I’m considered British. When I’m in Scotland I’m considered to be a Yank. When I moved to London I was considered American. I’m always foreign. In Trinidad I’m certainly foreign.” He shrugs. “But then who’s from where?”
No Foreign Lands, the title of the exhibition, comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Silverado Squatters: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” Doig has painted both Canada and Trinidad, but his paintings have the quality of dream or memory, as if we were separated from each place by a veil of strangeness. They strike a chord in a world which is connected by international travel, yet leaves many people feeling like strangers.
We look at a lush, green landscape of Trinidad. His paintings, he says, are more about “atmosphere and spectacle” than the place itself. This show focuses on his work since moving with his wife and five children to Trinidad in 2002. But the country in them is a country of the mind. “My Trinidad paintings are questioning what permission there is for me to make them. It’s a complicated place, a post-colonial society. I am a foreigner. People are very proud, very aware of their culture.”
Many of the paintings in the show have a similar mysterious quality. There’s a little girl up a tree – his daughter, he says – but impossibly far up, gazing down at all. There is an ethereal picture of man dressed as a bat, inspired by a character from a Trinidad masquerade. Some pictures are overtly foreboding, others have only the slightest hint that all is not well. The paint itself adds to the strangeness. Doig is a painter of great technical facility. As one critic wrote, he “never lets you forget the strangeness of picturing itself”.
He almost laughs at “this ridiculous canoe” which runs end to end over a canvas at least three metres long. He found it on an album cover for blues-rock band The Allman Brothers and got rid of the band, leaving only the Messianic-looking bass player, the late Berry Oakley. Canoes feature frequently in Doig’s painting, resonant perhaps with the sense of wanderlust, though they are drifting, not travelling, and always on water with untold depths.
Doig works with found images, photographs, postcards, fragments of advertising, snaps of his family, bringing ideas together in an associative way. Often he will start a picture and wait for years for an image which might complete it. “You get stuck and you leave something. But being stuck doesn’t mean it’s a disaster, it just means you’re stuck. I always have a lot of things on the go.” And often he doesn’t finish them until he has to. For this show, he worked 20-hour days in his New York studio to meet the deadline.
Doig had no childhood ambition to be an artist, but did a foundation course at Wimbledon College of Art in his twenties and got into Central Saint Martins. He had left home in his teens and worked on drilling rigs in the prairies of Western Canada. “I had no self-confidence, I didn’t think I was good enough to be a painter. But at art school I became interested in painting and painters. I developed painting ability somehow. I used to do a lot of painting and decorating,” he smiles. “It’s hours and hours of work with a brush. I think you gain a level of control.”
Despite his modesty, Doig’s work has been talked about in relation to Matisse, Monet, Turner, Delacroix, Gauguin, all with some justification. “I still think there’s a lot to be learned from looking at paintings from the past. There was a tendency in the 20th century to always be trying to be the next step in what painting could be, what art could be. Now you can follow these different avenues a bit more. That to me is what makes being a painter compulsive.”
He was painting in London in the YBA years when many a pundit was prepared to declare that painting was dead. “I heard that, but never paid any attention to it,” says Doig, mildly. “Painting was what I liked doing, what friends of mine did, what we liked talking about. I never put painting on a pedestal, there has always been lots of terrible painting being made.”
He first came to the notice of the art world with his large-scale Canadian landscapes, atmospheric, empty, sometimes beautiful. He mashed memories and tourist brochure images and hit on a style which was his own. “The advice I would give to younger artists is work within what you know, then you’re not going to be criticised for following someone else.”
He distances himself from the hype, from the sales figures. “It’s all about the market. I didn’t orchestrate this and neither did any of the people who represent me. I think you can’t help feeling some sort of pressure, but you have to ignore that side of success, otherwise you would never develop. You have to put the blinkers on.”
He does think one day he might paint Scotland. He was on holiday in Mull last year and took lots of photographs. One of the new paintings in the exhibition shows his youngest son in “a boat which becomes a raft” floating towards an island. “It’s not a painting of Mull but it reminds me a Scottish island, it doesn’t look like Trinidad.”
He rejects the notion of the romantic, though his paintings can be that and more. He is more comfortable with the sense that his work is uncomfortable, unsettling. “You want to make paintings that have got some sort of tension in them. I don’t want to make paintings that are about settling people down.”
It's unusual to find a non-performing art show gaining universal praise among the Edinburgh Festival coverage. Yet Peter Doig's exhibition, No Foreign Lands, which opened on Friday at The Scottish National Gallery, has garnered such coverage. The show of 20 large works as well as a number of smaller pieces is, somewhat surprisingly, Doig's first real major exhibition in the country of his birth, and draws together work created during the past decade, much of which the artist spent in Trinidad.
The Scotsman lists it among its Edinburgh must-sees, characterising Doig's work as "paintings that are at once familiar and deeply foreign. Picking up where Gauguin left off more than a century ago, Doig's compelling art is ancient yet modern." The Observer's Laura Cumming goes further in her review, writing "It is no overstatement to say that some of the paintings in Edinburgh are classics by now."
High praise indeed, yet this classic quality is apparent in part because of the images' familiarity. As a painter, Doig returns to images he has painted before, with a distinctly human preoccupation. In her great New York Times profile, Julie L Belcove writes, "a Doig can feel like a single frame of a movie or the fragment of a dream remembered upon waking. Like recurring dreams, Mr. Doig returns to motifs again and again."
Many commentators draw comparison between Doig's peripatetic earlier life - born in Scotland, raised in Canada and Trinidad, studied in London, returned to Trinidad - and the somewhat impressionistic qualities of his work. As Charles Darwent puts it in The Independent, "Like the artist himself, Doig's work seems forever in transit. Formally, it hovers between Modernism and old-fashioned figure painting."
Others praise the works' simple, approachable beauty. Mark Hudson in The Telegraph writes that, "at a time when painting appeared increasingly irrelevant to the mainstream of contemporary art, here was an artist whose enigmatic images of abandoned houses, frozen forests and lone figures in canoes seemed to champion traditional painterly values - colour, texture, space - while bringing to them a sense of unease that feels very much of our time."
These sentiments echo Adrian Searle's essay in our Peter Doig monograph. As Searle writes in the book: Doig's paintings "strike one as descriptions of emotional as much as physical weather, and the temperature is as often hot as icy, as often tropical as wintry. The light ranges form bright and sunny to brooding, nocturnal and sometimes spectral. But which is the more disturbing? The paintings are very often filled with accretion and a variety of touches, layerings and descriptive passages of one sort or another that one is certain the painter himself is anything but disengaged, much less distanced or distanced by the numbness of his vision." Searle adds: "What there is instead is a pervasive sense of something withheld, a narrative stalled or kept within abeyance, a world suspended and waiting to happen. This is the painting's invitation."
To take up such an invitation, do try to get along to No Foreign Lands, which is in view at Edinburgh's Scottish National Gallery until 3 November; it also will travel to Montréal next February. For more, go here. For a greater understanding of this important artist, do take a look at our monograph.
A retraction. Peter Doig’s canvases are so unabashedly, flamboyantly beautiful that when, in 2008, he filled Tate Britain with paintings of blotchy Canadian snowstorms and lone canoeists reflected in glimmering waters, I dismissed his entire oeuvre as decorative, lightweight and idea-free.
This was a mistake and unfair. No Foreign Lands, Doig’s new show at the Scottish National Gallery, proves that his exploration of visual delight is a queasier, more elusive, historically fraught affair than it at first seemed. This becomes apparent because Edinburgh concentrates entirely on work from the past decade, when Doig took a terrific gamble: he moved from London to Trinidad, where, after being born in Edinburgh, he had spent his early childhood before his family relocated to Canada.
Predictably, the tropical landscape transformed his palette, introducing yet more gorgeous hues and chromatic harmonies – sugar-pink palm trees, vibrant yellow ground, transparent emerald-turquoise water in “Walking Figure by the Pool”; pulsating rose/green/black contrasts around a single vanishing figure in “August in February” – and spurred him on to fresh motifs: jungles instead of forests, ping-pong players in shorts instead of skiers in puffa jackets.
But since Doig paints from photographs and recollections, never from life, that is only half the point. What he really dared in Trinidad was to confront, in a natural world of tropical extremes, the question that had only simmered in his Canadian works: what can a painter trying for an unbroken lineage with the formal assonance, sensual colour and expressiveness of modernism dare to paint in the 21st century? And can that be achieved without kitsch, nostalgia or anachronism?
Doig’s early paintings were strongly indebted to second-generation Canadian modernists Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, but in Trinidad he upped the stakes. Among his recent monumental canvases, splendidly displayed in the Scottish Royal Academy, memories of Gauguin, Matisse and Bonnard instantly clamour. In “Paragon” and “Cricket Painting (Paragrand)”, Gauguin-like red and blue pools of paint wash over silhouettes of an alert, waiting batsman, a frenzied bowler and a laconic fielder, fringed by lush, over-large leaves. The same languid eroticism and limpid colour, evoking Gauguin’s Tahiti, animates the sumptuous “Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)”, where six black boys in brilliant white shirts float at the centre of a watery idyll. But revisiting the scene in “Figures in Red Boat”, Doig paints bleached-out white boys disappearing into a murky ground while colour drains from a vessel whose outlines dissolve into streaks: the pessimism of Luc Tuymans rather than the enchantment of Gauguin.
Arranged around pairs or series of paintings that debate against one other, and with photographic sources closely documented, Edinburgh’s show emphasises Doig’s conceptual credentials. On a richly poured, stained blue abstract ground under a giant frond, a man, rendered realistically, runs along a beach in “Pelican (Stag)”. The impetus for the painting was anecdotal – from his boat, Doig saw a Trinidadian killing a pelican by drowning it, then wringing its neck as he dragged it home to eat. The incident spurred Doig to consider a found photograph in his archive, where an Indian fisherman drags his net along a beach, and the painting closely replicates that moving figure. But what gives the composition drama is a grand waterfall of pale blue paint, a block of colour in the centre of the canvas turning into ragged ribbons of dripping paint at the bottom – a burst of light recalling precisely Matisse’s “Shaft of Sunlight in the Woods of Trivaux” (1917), which had an important impact on Doig when he saw it at Tate’s 2002 Matisse/Picasso show a year before making “Pelican”.
In 2000 Doig had been bowled over by another radical Matisse, “Bathers and a Turtle”, particularly its balance between large abstract planes and trio of figures. Reprising his Canadian canoe paintings in Trinidad, he further simplified their composition into a tripartite structure like Matisse’s, with horizontal bands of sea, canoe and sky. He called the tropical series “100 Years Ago” because, as he says in Edinburgh’s catalogue: “That is our language. So much has happened with painting in the past 100 years that one can profit from and take nourishment from as a painter. Acknowledging that is extremely important.”
But to do so, Doig knows, is also a risk. Modernism was about fragmentation, memory, a sense of interiority that still resonates today. It was not about the image overload and virtual relation to reality that determine visual experience – and therefore artistic creation – now.
Doig’s collage aesthetic – coalescing images derived from diverse photographs, films, memories and quotations from paintings in a single canvas – responds to this and is one of the things that make his work look contemporary, enigmatic and ambivalent. Alienation and distancing effects are key. In “House of Pictures (Carrera)” he invites us to look at the Caribbean landscape through a geometric construct: a half-built, filmset house with windows giving out on to Doig’s familiar flat bands of sea and sky. In the foreground is a broken bottle of Stag beer – a reference to a similarly placed bottle in Manet’s realist “The Absinthe Drinker”. Can realism work? How, this painting asks, does a painter assess a landscape or depict postcolonial Trinidad without falling into the trap of exoticism?
Subsequent works repeatedly superimpose geometric grids to underline the formality of painting nature. A minimalist frame of blue/black rectangles, derived from a photograph of stacked beer crates, overwhelms arabesques of trees and a player in “Ping Pong”. A ziggurat of sound speakers installed for carnival dominate the palms and hills of “Maracas”. A ghostly figure fades, and rampant foliage is restricted by severe blocks of wall in “House of Flowers (See You There)”.
This device soon becomes formulaic and over-obvious – and forces one to confront a problem that does not go away with Doig: artifice. “Moruga”, depicting a re-enactment of Columbus’s landing, and “Cave Boat Bird Painting”, a self-portrait of the artist lying in his boat, pink hat drawn over his face, dreaming while a huge bird (menace? liberation?) flies overhead as time drifts by, are among many works that play up the fantasy nature of Doig’s whole endeavour.
I admire Doig’s superb technical assurance, his flair for composition, his exultation in the pleasure and materiality of paint in a conceptual age. But I am not in the end convinced or compelled by the world he creates because it is so deliberately, irrepressibly fake. His milieu is indeed one in which there are no foreign lands – an artist whose refusal of authenticity in favour of a second-hand cocktail of reveries, symbols and snapshots make him truly a global flâneur for our times. Anyone interested in the future of painting, and its difficult relationship with tradition, should see this show.
Peter Doig, ‘No Foreign Lands’, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, to November 3; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, January 25-June 8 2014
Peter Doig's belief in paint as the greatest medium of art is a love affair, a form of eroticism at times, which makes his figurative and pure landscapes fluid in their feel, edging towards abstraction.
Doig tries to do what poets do with language, to capture images as retrieved in memory, not as they are but as we recall them.
Proclaiming itself as the first show of Doig's work to be held in the country of his birth, the Scottish National Gallery's exhibition concentrates on the works of the last dozen years, when he moved to Trinidad and encountered a whole new range of colours, culture and texture. It makes for a glorious display.
0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org, to 3 November
It is being billed as a homecoming: the first major retrospective for the Scottish painter Peter Doig in the city where he was born in 1959. Yet few artists are less rooted than Doig, who moved to Trinidad when he was two, before growing up in Canada. After shuttling in adulthood between London and Canada, in 2002 he moved back to Trinidad, where he still lives.
Aside from its apt title, which borrows from Robert Louis Stevenson (“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”), there is nothing remotely Caledonian about Doig’s exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery: no vistas of Arthur’s Seat or visions of stags cantering through rousing Highland glens. Instead we find steamy, tropical pictures of sinister spirits emerging from shadowy jungle thickets, people playing cricket in heat-scorched orange landscapes, and solitary beachcombers trailing dead pelicans beside the surf as palm trees tremble overhead. With the exception of Gauguin, the French stockbroker who plunged into Tahiti with whom Doig is frequently compared, there are few artists it makes less sense to consider through the filter of their national identity.
Unlike his midcareer retrospective at Tate Britain in 2008, No Foreign Lands concentrates on work from the past decade or so since Doig has lived in the Caribbean, and includes a number of fresh paintings. There is no question that the sticky climate, coupled with the island’s folklore, has transformed his approach.
Doig made his name in the Nineties with a series of faux-naive canvases that now sell for millions of pounds. His application of paint was thick, almost sickly: pellets of pigment studded the ground like blobs of chewing gum stuck on a pavement. The psychedelic effect was often described as “hallucinogenic”. For me, his encrusted pictures were more like gingerbread houses, decorated with candies and sparkles.
The exhibition in Edinburgh contains a transitional work called Driftwood (2001-02), which has vestiges of the artist’s old love affair with impasto.
Elsewhere, though, the paint is generally hazy and thin, sometimes to the point of disappearance. In one memorably gigantic picture, Man Dressed as Bat (2007), a spectral presence with outstretched wings (part carnival performer, part obi sorcerer) occupies some immaterial dimension like a half-lit nightmare slowly appearing before our eyes. In Black Curtain (Towards Monkey Island) (2004), Doig paints a translucent curtain quivering before a sea view as though it is a metaphor for his new fluid, gauzy style. The image has the diaphanous texture of a dream.
Sea Moss (2004) is the pictorial equivalent of a ghost town: drained of colour, which has bled into the support, it consists of nothing but a few delicate grey-brown strokes representing palm trees in a landscape, like a wistful, half-remembered approximation of another painting altogether.
Everything feels liquid and woozy, full of clammy drips and sodden passages like pools of sweat, as though the paint has not yet dried — indeed, Doig was still working on the most recent pictures just days before the press view.
Since seeing this exhibition, I have caught myself thinking about it a lot.
It contains paintings that I loathe because of their aggressive flatness, or because of their clashing colours that grate like fingernails on a blackboard. But Doig is an artist who takes risks: in Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) (2004), for instance, he uses matt silver paint for the sky above the jungle — an unexpected but brilliant expression of noonday heat.
Often he is in dialogue with the Post-Impressionist and Modernist greats: Gauguin, obviously (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek way), but also Matisse, whose Bathers with a Turtle (1907-08), with its banded background, unsettling atmosphere, and monumental scale, has clearly become a touchstone for Doig.
I left the Scottish National Gallery convinced that, like his illustrious forebears, Doig is a serious painter, capable of darkly powerful visual poetry that lingers in the imagination.
In the latest episode of The New Yorker’s terrific Out Loud podcast, the writer Nicholson Baker talks about how the internet can lead to “a present tense assault of simultaneity” and the effect this has on our attention spans. He goes on: “I think that a necessary precondition for the appreciation of art is the feeling that the thing you are looking at or reading or listening to is all that there is at that moment and you have to give yourself to it.”
The sentiment might not be especially groundbreaking, but it resonated with me hugely hearing it just days after seeing the Peter Doig show at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. No Foreign Lands (named after a Robert Louis Stevenson quotation “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”) brings together work that the painter has created since moving to Trinidad around a decade ago. It’s an eclectic selection ranging from the very abstract to the very figurative, but what links them all is their ability to freeze you in time and place, demanding that you “give yourself to it” in Nicholson’s words.
It helps that these are big paintings, up to and including 100 inches wide, but nevertheless their ability to stop visitors in their tracks is astonishing.
Contrast the eerie verisimilitude of the hazy, shimmering gauze in Black Curtain (Towards Monkey Island) with the uber colourful Cricket Painting, the surreal single-player table tennis match in Ping Pong with the believable but no less intriguing figure under the pink umbrella in Lapeyrouse Wall. Combining his own and found imagery, Doig manages to create a world at once both exotic and reverberating with deja-vu.
Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands runs until November 3.
Peter Doig is one of the most highly regarded and internationally-renowned painters working today. The major exhibition at The National Galleries of Scotland is the first major exhibition of his work to be shown in the country of his birth.
This important international exhibition is a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts in Montréal. Surveying Doig’s paintings and works on paper of the past 10 years, this exhibition places particular emphasis on the artist’s approach to serial motifs and recurring imagery. Formally spare yet monumental in scale, at times approaching the exotic in their subject matter, these works show Doig working at the height of his extraordinary powers.
Simon Groom, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art said: ‘Peter Doig has been one of the most consistently inventive and seductive painters working anywhere in the world today. His art is figurative and often based on photographic images, but the end effect is to take us into a completely different world of often hallucinatory power. The works reveal a transforming vision of the world, steeped in a sense of beauty and mystery, rich in their imaginative suggestion yet remaining grounded in the real.’
Doig first came to prominence in the 1990s with his paintings of winter landscapes, highly atmospheric scenes of lakes (often with a lone canoe), and houses screened by trees and ski slopes. The rich and layered surfaces of his paintings showed that Doig was as much interested in abstract, formal qualities as he was in subject matter.
Over the period covered by this exhibition Doig has split his time between a house and studio in Trinidad, a studio in London and a professorship at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. His peripatetic life, memories of a childhood partly spent in Canada and his later life and studies in London have given him a particularly rich visual knowledge. Regardless of where Doig’s motifs originate, his experiences cross-fertilize and enhance his works. As fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in The Silverado Squatters: There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign. Doig the traveller is not merely a foreigner seeking out the exotic; rather, he is like Baudelaire’s flâneur, whose eye uncovers and finds significance in details which transcend locale, while spanning both time and space.
Throughout a career of three decades, Doig has reinvigorated a medium considered by many to have fallen into irrelevance. His inventive style, uncommonly sensuous palette and suggestive imagery set him apart while his willingness to take up the challenges posed by the work of Gauguin, Matisse, Bonnard and Marsden Hartley places him in an ongoing dialogue with a long line of celebrated artists.
Given that he is a native Scot (born 1959), it is surprising that Peter Doig’s exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery this summer—a highlight of the Edinburgh Art Festival—is his first major show there.
Doig lived in the city for his first two years, but grew up in Trinidad and then Canada before studying in London where, in the 1990s, he became one of the leading painters of his generation.
He returned to Trinidad in 2002 and his renewed acquaintance with the Tropics dominates the paintings in the Edinburgh exhibition.
“It’s brought a closer or more direct contact with my subject,” he says of the island. “Whereas before I was working more directly from memory or from external sources like photographs, when I went to Trinidad I was making much quicker use of things that I was seeing and I was inspired by.” A surge in bright colour, as seen in Cricket Painting (Paragrand), 2006-12, is one result.
“Colour is allowed to be much more vivid in light like that,” he says. When he travels back to Europe in the winter months, he says “it’s almost as if you develop cataracts on the flight over because everything is completely muted, the light is so different.
And then when you go the other way, it’s almost as if your eyes have been peeled and everything is so much more vivid.” But he emphasises an often ignored aspect of the Caribbean: 12 hours of the day are dark.
“Some elements of my paintings definitely come from that as well,” he says. “It’s something I see very much in Gauguin: take away the subject, take away everything and there’s this awareness of the darkness, of being close to the Equator.” Gauguin is one of many painters referred to in Doig’s recent work, another is Matisse, who Doig sees as “a brave painter” but also “a dangerous influence, because he did things with seemingly such ease and such style”.
At the beginning of his career, Doig says he was “in denial of being in any way linked to other artists.
Not that I felt that I was on my own, but I just wasn’t that interested… But as I got older, I got interested in classic work, and could appreciate it more.
That’s one of the best things about being a painter; you feel that there’s a connection, no matter how spurious it is.” The exhibition reveals Doig’s radical reworking of certain motifs.
“I don’t think of myself, God forbid, as being a ‘series painter’,” he says, “but there are certain things—for instance the painting I made of the figure with the big stack of loudspeakers, those monolithic forms [Maracas, 2002-08]—that could be seen as a geometric element in my paintings, with walls and boxes, things that in a way aren’t really walls or speakers or whatever, but are just shapes. I have made one large-scale painting and I started another a year or so ago, and I’m trying to finish it for Edinburgh. It’s going to be very different from the one that exists.” Doig’s exhibition is one of 50 shows across 30 sites in the Edinburgh Art Festival, among them a tribute to Franz West at Inverleith House (13 July-22 September) and a new series of rooms by Gregor Schneider at Summerhall (2-31 August).
Ten more new commissions appear in public locations throughout the city, including Peter Liversidge’s work in which the city’s flagpoles will bear flags saying, simply, “Hello”. Ben Luke Categories: Contemporary (1970-present)
On the fifth floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the museum’s canonical installation-narrative of the history of Modernism begins with a painting by Paul Gauguin. The Moon and the Earth (1893) depicts the naked female moon goddess Hina imploring the male Earth god Fatou to give humans the gift of everlasting life. There, as the curtain rises on the 20th century, is an image of Polynesian myth, as understood through the eyes of an itinerant Parisian.
A few paces deeper into that gallery, the curators have installed Henri Rousseau’s famous jungle odalisque The Dream (1910), a purely imaginative confection complete with exotic foliage, a snake charmer and crouching lions. (Rousseau, in fact, never left France.) Finally, turning left, you meet the knockout punch of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the notorious brothel scene from 1907. Picasso’s women seem to erupt from within, their faces morphing into African masks like those the artist had encountered in the halls of the Palais du Trocadéro.
Surging with the wealth generated by its colonial expansion around the globe, Europe was also experiencing cultural blowback. Worlds were colliding, Indigenous cultures were being violently effaced and, as a correlative to that barbarism, European artists were hungrily clutching at the material evidence of these (to them) exotic cultures, and the new ways of seeing and understanding they suggested. African masks, Japanese prints and, later, the tribal objects of the Inuit and the people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, which would be avidly sought by the French Surrealists: what would Modernism have looked like without colonialism and the cultural aftershocks to Eurocentrism it ultimately set in motion?
Peter Doig, now 54, was born in Edinburgh, the son of a Sri Lanka–born Scots accountant employed by an international shipping company. Thus, he entered life an inheritor of that colonial legacy. Yet the intervening half-century has afforded him the chance to witness the shift from colonialism to global capitalism, and the resulting accelerations of cultural convergence that have come with it.
From Doig’s earliest years, the family floated around the Commonwealth, borne by the tides of opportunity. Raised through his boyhood in Trinidad, Doig moved to Canada when he was seven, his family bringing with it memories of the tropics and a smattering of Trinidadian paintings his parents had collected, as well as his father’s own amateur paintings of tropical subjects, which hung on the walls of their home. They first settled in Baie d’Urfe, on Montreal’s West Island, then in the Eastern Townships, where Doig grew up skiing and playing ice hockey and pursuing other quintessential Canadian pastimes. When he was entering Grade 10, the family moved again, this time to Toronto, where he roamed the urban ravines with friends, immersed himself in the city’s punk and experimental-film scenes, and visited the vanguard artist-run centre A Space Gallery.
Finally, at 19, following a period out West working on the gas rigs in eastern Alberta and a year at an alternative high school in Toronto, he left for art school in London, England, where he started to turn those Canadian memories and influences into the paintings that would make his international reputation. For 12 years now, though, he has been resident back in Trinidad, with regular teaching stints in Düsseldorf. Asked where he feels most at home, he says London, but he does so tentatively, as if the whole idea of belonging somewhere is a kind of unattainable, elusive ideal.
When I arrive at his temporary Tribeca studio, a few hours after my visit to MoMA, it is clear that the complexity of his own trans-Atlantic cultural past remains a muse to his art. The studio table is littered with books and catalogues (Ferdinand Hodler, Henri Matisse, Le Corbusier), but he draws my attention first to a catalogue for a show he has just seen at the Morgan Library & Museum: a small and beautifully focused exhibition about Edgar Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879). Given what I have come here to discuss—the notion of painting as a document of our moment’s uneasy cultural compressions—I notice that the female aerialist in the painting is black. “Look at this,” he says, showing me the book, noting the dynamic placement of the figure against the vaulted ceiling above. “You don’t tend to hear much about Degas, but this is interesting.” Here at the circus, Miss La La, the mixed-race Prussian-born star of the travelling Troupe Kaira, hangs by her teeth above the crowd—an image suggesting extremity and sublimated violence. It’s a subject to keep post-colonial cultural theorists up for days. For Doig, it’s a bone to chew. Who knows where it will turn up in his art? If it will turn up? But today, here, it has his attention.
Propped around us in the studio are the beginnings of a new group of paintings, some of which are destined for Edinburgh. The Scottish National Gallery is preparing a survey of his last decade of work: “No Foreign Lands: Peter Doig.” (The title is drawn from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”) In winter 2014, the show tours on to the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, to a city where Doig spent a few years as a young man between degrees (odd-jobbing as a colour mixer and painter for a theatrical scenic artist) before completing his art education in London. A major retrospective exhibition at the prestigious Fondation Beyeler near Basel, Switzerland, looms on the calendar right behind it. As Doig prepares for these hurdles in New York, he has settled into a somewhat monastic regime of morning ice hockey at Chelsea Piers (his strip is hanging to dry in the studio basement), painting and reading. A mattress on the floor in a corner is framed with pink-striped sheets, strung up like a makeshift fort. Ever the nomad, Doig is living the life of a continental drifter.
His new paintings’ themes are consistent with his work of the past decade or so, since his decision to return to Trinidad with his then-growing family. In an earlier meeting at the New York space of Michael Werner Gallery, we had laughed about the roster of those who could claim Doig as their own, particularly since 2007, when his painting White Canoe (1991) set the world record at $11.3 million for a living European artist at auction: Canada for his years growing up (his parents still live near Grafton, Ontario); England for his art-school sojourns at Wimbledon School of Art, Saint Martins School of Art and Chelsea School of Art; and Scotland for the fact that he was born there, and for his Scots parentage. I suggest that the Trinidadians may soon join the queue to lay claim, though Doig says: “Trinidad is for Trinidadians. I would never want to try to represent Trinidad. Trinidadians should do that.”
Still, in Trinidad, he is no tourist. His engagement with the cultural community there has been a vital part of his artistic development, and he speaks with respect of the island’s tortured history of colonization by the Spaniards and British. (The island would only gain independence from British rule in 1962, when Doig was three years old.) The Studio Film Club, which he started with Trinidadian painter Che Lovelace, was for eight years an important gathering place for the island’s artistic community. As well, he adds, this past decade in Trinidad has been “the only time I have ever painted what’s in front of me,” working more than is his custom directly from lived experience. Characteristically, his practice has been to paint Canada from the vantage point of London, or, as he was doing again in the crunch this spring, the Caribbean from the perspective of a Tribeca studio, in addition to lifting images from archives, films, postcards, tourist brochures and the tide of mass media. Displacement has been part of his mechanism of inspiration. “At a distance,” he says, “the image is allowed to develop on its own, outside of its original context.”
The paintings stand around us half-finished. In one, two empty hammocks are suspended on a veranda, the white shutters behind evoking Matisse’s renderings of the south of France and North Africa, reductive descriptions of the spaces of European indolence. Perhaps, Doig says, they will come to be inhabited.
On another wall, a large vertical canvas depicts a standing spearfisherman with goggles on, his face obscured in a way that one can read as menacing—like many of the masked figures who appear in Doig’s work. The spearfisherman is accompanied by a seated figure in a yellow raincoat. The painting recalls a pair of fishermen Doig and his friend chanced upon on one of their habitual kayaking trips on Trinidad’s wild North Coast. As is Doig’s custom, these subjects are hard to interpret precisely. Is this raincoated figure friend or foe? What is happening here? The racial identity of the subject is ambiguous.
As with the subjects of some of his earlier series—like his roller-skating girl (whom he glimpsed in Central Park), or his beach walker holding a dead pelican (another chance encounter in Trinidad), or his boatload of young men at sea (taken from an Indian postcard and transposed to a Trinidadian locale)—Doig will flip the racial identities of these figures back and forth from black to white as he moves between painterly iterations, leaving the matter of race precisely ambivalent.
Another large half-finished painting, propped against the wall, depicts a man on horseback pictured against a tropical backdrop of shore and sea. “I was remembering here Goya’s painting of the Duke of Wellington,” says Doig, referring to the famous 1812 equestrian portrait now in Apsley House, London, whose pose he has borrowed here, “but I was also thinking about the arrival of the Spaniards in Trinidad—of how they came by sea,” starting with Christopher Columbus’s third voyage in 1498. The painting suggests an uneasy fusion of realities, and that disjuncture is where its energy lies. “The painting also comes out of something quite personal,” he adds. “A memory I have of riding on the back of a swimming horse, something I experienced in my childhood in Quebec.” Seeing is refracted through multiple cultural lenses; Doig belongs wholly to none of them.
His works from the early 1990s leaned heavily on the Symbolist precedents of Edvard Munch and Emil Nolde, but Doig’s frame of reference is always expanding, as he searches for images that will snag consciousness, becoming puzzles to be worried at in paint. Once he finds that image he is apt, like Munch, to return to it over a period of years, as he has the figure of the drifting canoeist from the 1990s (equal parts Tom Thomson, Duane Allman and Friday the 13th), or the archivally sourced image of a hooded Franklin Carmichael sketching in a northern Ontario landscape, which Doig reiterated in a dazzling series of works in that same decade. “There was a Munch show in Paris that I saw a few years ago,” he tells me. “You went into the first room and there were his greatest hits. And then you walked into the next gallery and there he was painting the same pictures 30 years later. The hair was just standing out on the back of my neck. Munch had so much commitment to the images that were vital to him.”
Some of Doig’s artistic points of reference are, of course, Canadian. In our earlier meeting, we had spoken about David Milne, and the historic artist’s atomization of the field of vision. (“There’s no hierarchy to what’s important,” Doig said, admiringly.) He has looked carefully at the Group of Seven, and in his student days used to sometimes visit the library at Canada House on Trafalgar Square to leaf through tourist brochures depicting the Canadian landscape, searching out the roots of his own belonging. But we had also talked about contemporary Vancouver photoconceptualist Jeff Wall, whom Doig respects for his ability to craft pregnant and timely images loaded with complex signification, and for his learned engagement with the history of art. Wall, too, explores the edgy interactions of race in a diasporic world, with people coming together in urban space in ways that seem combustible.
Also in his thoughts these days is Canadian Impressionist James Wilson Morrice, whom Doig describes as “the Scots Montrealer,” and who is clearly felt as a kindred spirit. “He made absolutely beautiful paintings of Trinidad,” Doig says. “I have often thought of doing a really big version of a Morrice sketch, because the openness is just incredible—the amount of atmosphere he is able to catch in a very limited amount of information.” Like Morrice, who often painted light and shadow playing across walls of mosques or souks (in, for example, Outside the Mosque, from 1913), Doig has made a study of walls—those impediments that obscure our view, and presumably, on a metaphorical level, our understanding, of what lies behind them.
Doig tells me, “In downtown Port of Spain, there is a big prison—it was obviously built in colonial times—and it occupies a whole city block. It’s just a big yellow wall; it looks like it has been painted with Colman’s mustard powder. It’s very dry. I have often thought of painting it. I know people who have been in that prison and it’s very grim, but there is no tradition of investigative reporting there, so nobody really knows unless they have been on the inside. You just hear the stories.” He adds, “The thing is, it’s right in the middle of town, so the people inside can hear daily life going on all around them. The carnival passes right by it.”
His Painting for Wall Painters (Prosperity P.o.S.) (2010–12), which was shown last fall in Doig’s exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery in London, records another such wall, this one from a bar in Port of Spain. Its worn and pitted surface is decorated with the painted flags of a host of then–newly sovereign Caribbean and African nations, and one can just see the open ocean beyond it, framed by islands and palms. The rampant Lion of Judah, a symbol of the Rastafarian faith, dominates the left-hand side of the composition. In another, smaller painting from the same show, the crowned lion seems to disport itself on a beach, framed above and below by bands of green and red. Is this a painting of graffiti, or a kind of landscape? Does Doig’s painting let us into three-dimensional space or block us out?
Doig’s earlier Metropolitain (House of Pictures), from 2004, is similarly complex. The painting depicts a European man in a top hat (the figure is a quotation from Honoré Daumier’s famous mid-19th-century painting, The Print Collector) examining what is in effect a wall of paintings, including Doig’s beach scene Pelican, painted that same year. Yet the wall seems curiously diaphanous, and through it one can partially view a tropical landscape. The wall both obstructs and permits perception.
Doig pictures his collector/artist as a kind of clown, a dishevelled bohemian figure that he came back to several times in the paintings of this period. “For centuries in Trinidad there has been a carnival character based on Europeans,” Doig tells me, referring to the tradition of public masquerade and celebration that developed after the abolition of slavery in 1834. “He wears a top hat and has a red nose and a white face—because of the sunburned noses and powdered skin of the white visitors. Carnival was the only time of release. The Trinidadians could mock the Europeans, dressing up like lords and ladies.” The painting seems to express humility as Doig contemplates the limits of his own understanding. He allows that this is a self-portrait: the view at the top of the painting, he says, is the view from his studio in Port of Spain. He adds, “The painting is really asking the question: Why have I come here?”
“It is hard not to see it as exotic,” Doig says of his adopted island home, “because with European eyes, with North American eyes, you see things that are just so startling—everything down to the sheer fact of colour, or a dead pelican, or five dead dogs on the road on your way to the studio, or a dead man on the way to the studio, even. There are things there that you don’t see in European or North American society.” That shock and estrangement—and the difficult stretching of consciousness that arises from such abrupt revelations—registers in his art.
Which brings us back to Gauguin. Revisiting Gauguin, looking at the catalogue for Tate Modern’s 2010 retrospective, I have more questions about the French expatriate and the meaning of his art; I now detect a darker tinge to his record of Polynesia. Far from being a paradise, this is an Eden laced with threat, and inhabited by people who seem unknowable, obdurate. In many of the paintings there is a sense of malaise and a perspectival incoherence. In some, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Purao Tree (1897–98), space seems to break down into an inchoate composite of blues, and it becomes unclear if one is looking at the ribs of a decomposing carcass or the fronds of a leafy palm. “I think it’s much more questioning, really,” says Doig of Gauguin’s work, “as if he is amazed by it, overwhelmed by what he is seeing.” He wonders aloud if we are not now indebted to the artist for the freedom he took to explore the anxieties engendered by colonialism in that early modern moment. In this, I suggest, Gauguin is not unlike our own Emily Carr, whose discomfort with her colonial identity (and the assigned gender roles prevalent in Victorian culture) spurred her curiosity about Indigenous peoples—even as she indulged her period’s romanticizing notions about them. Awkwardly, searchingly, these artists broke trail.
“The thing with Gauguin is that the mood is very strange,” says Doig. “There is a feeling of being quite daunted by what he is seeing.” After a moment, he adds: “In the tropics, you see, there’s always this fact of the 12 hours of darkness. I think you can sense that in Gauguin, too. There is the area of light, where you are, but then there is the forest beyond.”
This is a feature article from the Fall 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. Find additional works by Peter Doig at canadianart.ca/doig.
You know a living artist has hit some form of the big time when his or her art is included in a calendar, affixed to a coffee cup or ironed to the front of a T-shirt. All of which is to say that, yes, Virginia, you can buy a Peter Doig tie and Peter Doig scarves in the gift shop of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The tie goes for $74.99, the scarves for $166.99.
Merchandise, though, wasn’t much on Doig’s mind the other day as he strolled the MMFA in a puffy ski parka and jeans. He was tired, weary-looking, having caught an early-morning flight to Montreal from New York where he’d spent the last two weeks in a studio in Tribeca.
“I was working on some paintings and hoping to bring one of them here,” he said, his voice accented by a slight mid-Atlantic burr. “But then I had to realize there was no way I was going to be ready.”
Now it was time to throw himself into preparations for No Foreign Lands, his much-anticipated retrospective opening Jan. 25 at the Montreal musée. It’s a big show as well as a historic one – more than 40 oils, large, idiosyncratically colourful, elusively atmospheric, painted on canvas and linen, complemented by preparatory pieces, sketches and smaller works dating from 2002 to the present.
At 54, Doig is one of the most talked-about and praised artists in the world, his work housed in many prestigious public and private collections. Last year two Doigs, both painted in the 1990s, sold at auction in London for, respectively, $10.5-million and $12-million. Montreal currently has bragging rights as the sole North American venue for No Foreign Lands, which recently ended a three-month berth at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, Doig’s birthplace. Indeed, the last significant Canadian Doig show, a tour of public galleries in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, was in 2001 while his penultimate retrospective, in 2008, lapped just European institutions.
Montreal holds a special meaning for Doig: It was here in 1966 at age 7, as one of what would be four siblings, that he came with his mother and father, a Sri Lankan-born Scots accountant, from Trinidad, their home since 1960. Later the family moved to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Doig became an enthusiastic skier, skater and hockey fan, followed by another move in 1974 to Toronto. Decamping for London in late 1978, Doig proceeded to worm his way into art schools there, “ducking and diving and living on the cheap for many, many years,” before circling back to Montreal in 1986 for what proved an almost three-year stay.
Architect Frank Gehry, Toronto-born in 1929, likes to call the Art Gallery of Ontario “the place he first discovered art as a child.” The MMFA, in particular the majestic 1912 neo-classical Hornstein Pavilion across from its modern Sherbrooke Street headquarters, is Doig’s equivalent. Indeed, says Stéphane Aquin, MMFA curator of contemporary art, it was Doig who requested his retrospective be hung in the now-102-year-old MMFA he once visited as a youngster, accompanied sometimes by his father, an amateur painter. (The Gehry analogy can only be carried so far, however: The AGO, renovated by Gehry in 2008, stands as a testimony to the architect’s art whereas the MMFA as yet has no Doigs in its permanent collection.)
The Montreal retrospective is dominated by paintings set in or inspired by the land and seascapes of Trinidad. The Caribbean nation, which gained independence in 1962 when Doig was a three-year-old living there, has been the artist’s primary base since 2002, following 12 years spent (mostly) in London, where a nomination for the Turner Prize in 1994 secured his fame and reputation. The notion of home is a slippery one for the artist, given the rather nomadic nature of much of his life. “I guess I do feel at home in many places,” he said. “But that may be just my particular understanding of home, having never spent much time in one place. So it’s hard for me to know what home is in terms of a neighbourhood, a town, a city…. I mean, I don’t really feel like a Trinidadian, although my children [they number five] do.”
Doig suggested that the title for the retrospective, from a declaration by the 19th-century novelist/sojourner Robert Louis Stevenson (“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”), should be taken with a grain of irony. “Of course, there is such a thing as foreign lands,” he declared. “Stevenson’s attitude was, ‘Step forth, people; enjoy travel; be inquisitive.’ But for many people there are foreign lands; even for myself, I know what it means to be a foreigner.”
At the same time, little seems foreign or alien when it comes to Doig’s art. The Montreal show is a perfect encapsulation of his magpie-like propensity for plucking and using a dazzling array of art/historical references – Gauguin in Tahiti, Hockney in California, Matisse circa 1913, the Abu Ghraib photographs, Whistler’s nocturnes, Rousseau’s jungles, Daumier, Munch, Frederick Varley, Diebenkorn, Emily Carr, Goya, R.B. Kitaj – while producing a picture that is at once unmistakably Doigian and an affirmation of painting’s relevance in a mixed-media universe.
The Trinidad pictures are markedly looser, more open and less “cross-hatched” than the so-called “Canadian-motif” paintings like White Canoe (1990) and The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991) that have made Doig an auction darling. “I kind of wanted to get away from the thicket effect, the looking-through, all those layers, because I thought it was becoming a mannerism,” he explained. “I wanted to make paintings that didn’t rely on a kind of obvious materiality of paint and the fetishism that goes with that. I think a lot of people like paintings with large amounts of paint on the surface and I question that.
“As an artist, or at least for me,” he continued, “you’re always trying to escape or wanting to escape your own work or at least your mannerisms and find something new…. A lot of Matisse paintings look sort of underdone or unfinished but there’s a life to those paintings that doesn’t exist in those works that seem so complete, closed in on themselves and finished.” He laughed. “Then again, you don’t want to see that become a mannerism either.”
When Doig attends a show like the one in Montreal, he claims it is, in part, because “I’m looking at the paintings for solutions for what I’m making now, for tips, really, for what I can resolve. Because, as is the case with many of the paintings you see here, they’re started and then they’re left and I get stuck and I go back to them. If I know it’s a completely useless effort, I’ll paint over it. Generally, though, there’s something there I’ll want to keep going and then I’ll find a way, usually by working on another painting, or looking at someone else’s painting.”
Dorothy Parker famously said she “hated writing but loved having written” – a credo that resonates with Doig, who’s been known to spend four or five years on a single canvas. “I have moments where I really enjoy painting, love it, in fact,” he acknowledged. “But generally it’s a frustrating activity. So much is not planned; so much is trial and error. A lot of the paintings are made in a state of duress somewhat, even desperation, the best ones anyway, and there’s a lot of experimentation.” He laughed again. “Really, it’s a terribly frustrating way to work. But that’s the way I do it because I don’t really want there to be a formula.”
Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands runs from Jan. 25 to May 4 at the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1379 Sherbrooke St. West.
Swamps bring out the best in Peter Doig. His paintings are full of wilting palms and marshy grass, dark water and veils of Spanish moss. With the dozens of canvases in No Foreign Lands, the retrospective of his work now finally on at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, we are constantly being taken to the swamps and bayous of Trinidad, where Doig lives. He was born in Edinburgh, spent part of his adolescence in Toronto, and studied art in London. But it’s Trinidad, where he moved in 2002, that animates his most interesting work in this show. The plant life in Grand Riviere (2001-02) seems to melt with tropical heat. Pelican (Stag) (2003) suggests the kind of windless Caribbean night that forces men to go shirtless. Even when he’s in France, he’s in the West Indies: Stag (2002-5) shows a wino leaning on a post outside a Paris metro stop, but jungle foliage looms on the edge of the picture.
Channeling Gaugin, Doig sets off occasional explosions of cotton candy pink and lemon meringue yellow, but his regular palette is suggestively murky. Suggestive because it establishes the mood for the mysterious, tension-filled stories that play out in his paintings. The characters in these stories are disturbingly ambiguous. Doig makes you pore over them like they’re stills in the Zapruder film. They’re all hints, outlines, ghostly and ungraspable.
100 Years Ago (2000) shows us a man in a red canoe, floating in weirdly placid, chlorine-blue water. There’s an island behind him on the horizon, dotted with institutional buildings. The man has long, greasy hair and a handlebar mustache; he wears a kind of sleeveless tunic. It could be Charles Manson. The questions start piling up: who is this? Why is he looking at us? Where does the canoe come from? Has he escaped from the island on the horizon? Where is he going?
Boats—red boats, even—are a recurring motif in Doig’s work: they give access to the swamp. Sometimes the boats are more real than the people they carry. The title of Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) (2003-04) suggests the artist’s propensity for making the raw, inanimate world more stable and coherent than his human figures. In Pelican (2004), a man staggers along a beach at the edge of a forest. His body is intact, but his face is translucent, disappearing into the undergrowth behind him, like one of Francis Bacon’s popes.
It gives the impression of an early, washed-out Daguerreotype photograph, the kind where the grim Victorian faces are blurred and spooky. The look of photography and film suffuses Doig’s work. The occasionally corroded look of his surfaces can bring to mind film melting in a projector. Above all, the propulsive narrative energy of his best work can tighten the chest like a thriller.
The most chest-tightening picture in the show is Figures in Red Boat (2005-07). It draws together all of Doig’s most characteristic effects: landscapes imagined with the vividness of a dream; surreal, moody colouring; the vision of a zero-sum game between nature and humanity; the use of narrative. Six faceless men sit in a red motorboat; sky and water are the same otherwordly mauve. At the bow, one of the spectres stares back at the viewer, or seems to; his posture and the cast of his head say he’s noticed you, and he’s not happy about it. You’ve stumbled into something illicit—a drug run, or the dumping of a body maybe. The other five figures appear oblivious to your presence, as if the painting were capturing the second before a bout of trouble starts. It’s an ingenious tactic: Doig makes you more than a voyeur; he makes you an actor in the drama unfolding on the canvas.
It’s fitting that the show ends with the posters Doig has painted for weekly screenings of his Port-of-Spain film club. He’s done these deft pastiches for dozens of movies: Some Like It Hot, Old Boy, Grizzly Man, Jules and Jim. For all of his obvious painterly influences—Gaugin and Bacon, but also Vuillard and Vermeer, Tom Thompson and William Kurelek—the Fine Arts retrospective shows a profoundly cinematic painter at work.
Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands runs until May 4 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest.
Hazy horizons that fade into the fuzzy-edged sea, forests at once electric and melting, leaves as plump and ripe as fruits -- these are the mystical yields of Peter Doig's painted travels. His current exhibition "No Foreign Lands" turns a Caribbean journey into a wash of tart colors and bubbling textures, forming tropical visions existing somewhere between the memory and imagination.
Doig's parents moved to the tropical island of Trinidad from their hometown of Scotland when the artist was only a child. Doig himself participated in a month-long residency in the Caribbean destination in 2000, after having spent time in the UK and Canada, and eventually made it his permanent home two years later. Yet even prior to this move there was something about Trinidad that seeped its way into Doig's canvases.
"I remembered the architecture," Doig said in an interview with Angus Cook. "I could remember smells. I could remember roads, and routes. It’s a potent place visually, just the experience of it, even at a young age, and I realized I had always felt very fond of this place, very connected to it even though I hadn’t been back in 33 years."
Doig riffs off the traditions of the great colorists past, warping their aesthetics to remain relevant to painting's contemporary challengers. Paul Gauguin's acidic planes trickle into Maurice Denis-like skeletal trees, as Édouard Vuillard's ghostly blotted figures wander through them. In this timeless space, rich with both art history's classic beauty and the piercing brightness of a computer screen saver, Doig poses a mouth-watering challenge to anyone who insists painting is dead.
Doig's works function like a memory of an exotic vacation that, over time, grows fantasies of its own, eventually becoming inseparable from the original events. See the psychedelic works below and let us know if you think Doig is bringing symbolism back in the comments.
Peter Doig's "No Foreign Lands" will show until May 4, 2014 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
For most of us, the question, “Where are you from?” is an innocuous conversation-starter. For artist Peter Doig, it’s more complicated. Nearly every discussion of his painting starts with his hopscotching biography. Born in the U.K., he grew up in Trinidad and Canada; as an adult, he’s lived and worked in all three places, as well as New York City.
Appropriately, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition No Foreign Lands takes its name from the Robert Louis Stevenson quote: “There are no foreign lands; it is the traveller only that is foreign.” The fact that Doig’s landscapes are based on postcards, photographs, and memory only adds to the sense that travel and displacement are integral to his art.
All of his paintings have the tension of culture clash. His Trinidad paintings evoke Fauvist French artists in the tropics. His Canadian images suggest the Group of Seven, who fused European influences and Canadian landscapes to create something uniquely their own. The National Gallery of Canada has several works by Doig in its collection, including Grand Riviere (2002), Untitled (Double Portrait) , and 100 Years Ago (2001).
I’ve long been drawn to his art, perhaps because my own background is similar to his: childhood in the tropics, then the U.S. and Europe, then immigrating to Canada. I appreciate someone who can see a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket as an ethnographic textile.
But the No Foreign Lands exhibition made it clear to me that there’s much more to Doig’s work than the fish-out-of-water nostalgia that initially attracted me.
The museum’s galleries open onto one another, allowing visual connections between the very different subject matter in Doig’s paintings. Indeed, Doig mentioned at the exhibition opening that he loved the way No Foreign Lands showed him connections between his paintings that he hadn’t necessarily noticed himself.
What immediately becomes apparent in the exhibition is how international the paintings are in terms of style. Two of Doig’s main influences—Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin—had their own expatriate experiences: Matisse in North Africa, and Gauguin in Tahiti. But their “exoticism” didn’t just come from their local-colour subject matter. Like many artists of their era, they both looked beyond European traditions for inspiration. Matisse absorbed the aesthetics of African art, Silk Road textiles, Orientalist art, and more. Gauguin’s influences included Japanese prints, folk art, and the tribal art of the South Seas.
Doig, as their heir, draws his inspiration from all these sources, and from every inhabited continent. His paintings feel worldly not only because of what he paints, but how he paints. In every aspect of his painting, he is a man of the world.
Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands is on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to 4 May 2014.
Peter Doig’s exhibition “No Foreign Lands,” currently on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) features a series of landscape paintings, drawings, and posters that capture the dream and reality of Doig’s relationship with Trinidad. “I remember the architecture, the smells. I could remember roads, and routes. It’s a potent place visually, just the experience of it,” says Doig.
When Doig was three years old, he and his family moved to Trinidad for a couple of years while his father worked for a trading and shipping company. Many years later, after living in Montreal and the UK, he went back to Trinidad for an artist residency. After he completed the residency in Trinidad and returned to the UK, he became obsessed with the mystery and essence of the island. He painted, using tropical colors and textures that referenced his vague memories and dreams of the island. He returned to the island after three months of producing some of the most meaningful art he’s ever created, and has lived there ever since.
The exhibit takes place in the renown Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavillion, a slew of classical galleries situated in the MMFA dedicated to the Salon style of the late 19th- and early 20th-century arts. Doig’s work, which is highly influenced by Bonnard, Matisse, Gauguin, and Munch, is a perfect fit for the space.
One of his most important paintings 100 Years Ago, features a bearded man in a bright orange canoe in the ocean. Doig recreated this scenery over 50 times, and the one that was chosen to be in the Montreal exhibit was the first one he painted. While inspired by the island, his motivations stemmed mostly from the memories he remembered as a child. It wasn’t until after he returned to the island where he felt a more significant purpose for the painting. “I think seeing the ocean, being on an island and seeing these islands around the island, and the experience of it all, kind of in a way, opened things up, made the paintings a bit more expansive,” Doig said.
The end of the exhibition was dedicated to the movie posters he created for screenings at the StudioFilmClub, a repertory theatre he built inside his studio in Trinidad. He promoted screenings of films such as Jules et Jim, Tokyo Story, and Black Orpheus. These screenings were Doig’s way of returning the inspiration he got from the island, and the posters themselves served as art for the community.
“No Foreign Lands” will be on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through May 4, 2014.
Peter Doig’s ‘No Foreign Lands’, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in North America (co-produced with the National Galleries of Scotland, where it recently ended a three-month stint at the Scottish National Gallery) was nothing short of masterful. Forty of his paintings and a full raft of works on paper held the exhibition halls of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ oldest and grandest building with astonishing ease and gravitas.
Here, Doig establishes his reputation as a latter-day Patrick Lafcadio Hearn of painting. Hearn was a writer who travelled widely and was obsessed with hauntings, and Doig shares those traits as well as a peculiar ability to soak up all the particularities of place, and sweat them out in painting. An itinerant traveller at heart, Doig makes paintings that are replete with nomadic ghosts. (The title of the exhibition derives, somewhat ironically, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s statement: ‘There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.’) Doig channels the ghosts of his artistic forebears with unusual fluidity and flagrant daring: Pierre Bonnard, Honoré Daumier, Paul Gauguin, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse, David Milne, Tom Thomson, James Wilson Morrice and many others.
Interestingly, Doig is a dyed-in-the-wool Montrealer (having spent the better part of his teens and early 20s here). It was to Montreal that he emigrated in 1966 with his mother and father, a Sri Lankan-born Scots accountant, from Trinidad, which had been the family’s home since 1960. Later, they moved to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Doig became an expert skier, skater and fanatical hockey fan. (Even given the recent embarrassing travails of Montreal’s hockey team, Les Canadiens, the game remains his ruling passion, after painting, that is.)
However, this exhibition was devoted to Doig’s output since he returned to Trinidad in 2000 for an artist residency, settling there once again in 2002. The people in his Trinidad paintings are largely spectral presences – for instance, the watery phantasms in Figures in Red Boat (2005–07), the translucent figure standing in the background of Paragon (2006) or in the foreground of Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006–12). And in Mal d’Estomac (Stomach Ache, 2008) he seems to be channelling the restless ghost of Philip Guston’s late work. Even Ping Pong (2006–08) haunts us with its eerie and disturbing reminder of the Windows 8 user interface.
In Trinidad, Doig started to paint directly from observation of its land, flora and seascapes, but also integrated at will figures from his huge archive of images. For instance, the man portrayed as the Walking Figure by Pool (2011) is based on a photograph of the Dada artist Francis Picabia. Doig’s imagery, wilfully and wildly eclectic, runs the gamut from the ubiquitous canoe (a subject that he has been painting for 25 years, depicting it traversing sundry Canadian lakes as well as the deep waters off the coast of Trinidad), to the signature pelican and those shadowy human figures, silent voyeurs, who populate these paintings as though they are standing, like lonely sentinels, on the threshold of eternity. Doig’s islands are compelling, as is the case with Pelican Island (2006); they seem to exist outside both geography and time.
Doig is, above all, a wily and capacious scavenger: Gauguin’s Tahitian idylls, the colourful enigmas of the post-Fauve Matisse, nightmarish Abu Ghraib photographs, Milne’s luminous landscapes, Wilson Morrice’s beach scenes, Rousseau’s jungles, late Guston, Rothko, whomever. Doig joins at the hip all manner of polarities and contrarieties: individual memory and unconscious collective memory, past and present, presence and absence.
Lately, Doig has progressively moved away from work that flirted with the fetishization of its own pigment-based materiality. Instead, his painting’s have become more open, porous and fluid – almost oneiric and oceanic in their mien. As the works in this exhibition show, both his understandable hubris and his imagery continue to entice and insistently haunt.