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5 March 2023

Peter Doig’s dreamscapes

In his sumptuous and strange paintings, the globetrotting Scottish artist unpicks reality to make it his own.

By Michael Prodger

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Alpinist, Peter Doig’s altarpiece-size painting of a skier on a mountain crest with the Matterhorn looming behind, is not that the figure is dressed in the costume of Harlequin from the commedia dell’arte but that it was conceived and started in the sticky heat of Trinidad. Only later did the picture make it to the Alps, when it accompanied Doig from his Port of Spain studio to Zermatt before being finished in London last year. But then the artist asserts that he is not interested in real spaces or specific times, “only painted spaces”. The picture floated free from geographical constraints just as the incongruous world it depicts – a mix of Watteau, surrealism and the late-18th-century sublime – is unmoored from reality. 

Alpinist is the centrepiece of an exhibition of 12 of Doig’s recent paintings and 19 prints currently on show at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Together they chart the end of his 20-year sojourn in the Caribbean and his return to the UK in 2021. For all his denial of specificity, Doig’s work has always reflected the places he has lived – Canada, London and Trinidad – even if it has never dealt with a tangible reality. The last painting in the show, finished on the eve of the opening, depicts a narrowboat on the Regent’s Canal.

Boats have been a recurring motif in his art. It was White Canoe (1990-91), a romantic image of an empty vessel – or possibly one with a figure slumped in it – drifting on the edge of a forest lake, that carried him into the upper echelon of the art market when it sold for $11.3m in 2007. This figure was made to seem paltry in 2021 when another canoe painting, Swamped (1990), went for $39.9m. His pictures include abandoned paddle steamers, a boat full of young black men landing on a jungle shore, another with conquistadors flying a cross-emblazoned flag approaching terra nova, and a single naked figure – Christ, Robinson Crusoe or a wild man – out at sea alone in a canoe meant for ten people. For Doig, boats are not just a means of transport but a way of crossing from one mental or spiritual realm to another.

[See also: David Hockney’s fascination with technology]

If Canal marks Doig’s return to London and the psychological readjustment it entailed, then House of Music (Soca Boat) (2019-23) is a painting of the warmer waters and different culture he left behind. Here a small boat chugs across a Caribbean bay bearing a cargo of musicians rather than fish. The title comes from a song by the late calypso singer Shadow, “Dat Soca Boat”, and the picture, as is often the case with Doig, is a composite image adapted from a photograph. It is an evocation of music just heard and fading to silence as the boat sails by. There is no explanation of why the band is on a boat, where they are going or who they are playing to.

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In Trinidad, Doig ran his own film club, painting a different poster to advertise each week’s film, and almost all of his paintings, just like House of Music (Soca Boat), have a cinematic feel, as if they were stills taken from a dream sequence.

Back in the 1990s, when conceptualism and installations looked set to overrun the art world, Doig kept faith with oil on canvas. The medium attracts him, he says, because “Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it… It’s about the idea of getting absorbed into them, so you get physically lost.” This is exactly the effect his newer pictures have on the viewer too. There are large areas of wet colour where the pigment soaks the canvas or linen like watercolour and others, such as the hair of the figure in Painting on an Island (Carrera) (2019), that are as thick as clay. However much stillness there is in his scenes, his surfaces eddy and swirl, and in following them the messages passed from eye to mind begin to blur.

If Doig’s canvases can recall the throb of abstract expressionist painting, then in his ability to conjure up a resonant and entirely personal world he shares the genes of Balthus and Paula Rego. The realm of his paintings is less unnerving than theirs but just as enigmatic: a woman moonbathing on a beach at night; the singer Shadow, a major part of Trinidadian carnival, in bicorn hat and skeleton costume outside a music shop; two calypso figures playing music as a woman passes by on a donkey, a painting inspired by a poem – “where else have you heard such music, such great noise?” – by his friend Derek Walcott. In such mises en scène Doig undoes the real to make it unreal.

Among Walcott’s last works before his death in 2017 was a suite of poems, Morning, Paramin, inspired by Doig’s paintings. The etchings in this exhibition are Doig’s response to those poems. Unlike his paintings, they show him trying out an assortment of styles and methods – from scratchy etching lines to inky pools of aquatint – without quite settling on one that is entirely right for him. Colour is perhaps too intrinsic to his art to be reduced to mere black and white.

Whatever it is that is going on in Doig’s lyrical and mystical world, it is visually sonorous.

[See also: AI art is only good for hollow, hotel lobby pieces]

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