Peter Doig: a taste for the tropics

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Forget pickled sheep and unmade beds – Peter Doig’s new show will turn the Scottish National Gallery into a temple of painterly delights–James Campbell writes for London’s Guardian.

The pleasure principle struggles for recognition these days as a measure of art appreciation. The pleasure of paint in particular, with life-drawing as its grammar, has been brushed aside with gestures heavy in conceptual irony. There may be good reasons for gazing at a pickled sheep or a tent with the names of the designer’s lovers sewn in, but visual exhilaration is not among them. For the next three months, William Playfair’s neoclassical rooms at the old Royal Scottish Academy buildings in Edinburgh, now part of the Scottish National Gallery, will be a temple of painterly delights. Peter Doig creates big, well-constructed oil paintings that are sometimes years in the making and are apt to change under the artist’s hand as the paint itself ages and alters in character. They reflect his preoccupation with weather – the shaping force behind all the forms and colours of nature.

Doig was born in 1959 in Scotland, a country ever-anxious about the weather, but left with his family at an early age for Trinidad and then, while still a child, moved to Canada. It was there that he found his first big subject: snow. The Doig painting that became famous earlier this year for the wrong reason – The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, auctioned at Christie’s, London, for more than £7m in February – appears to have been painted through a screen of trees in a blizzard, a device it has in common with many pictures of the same period (early 1990s). It is, however, the tropical landscape and atmosphere of the Caribbean that dominates the Princes Street show. In 2002, Doig returned to Trinidad, the setting of his infant years and no doubt the wellspring of fundamental memories and reactions to nature. He has had a house there ever since.

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As the weather changes, the atmosphere and appearance of what seemed to be a settled scene changes, too. Doig customarily paints or draws different versions of the same subject; sometimes the initial prompt is a figure or vignette captured originally with a camera. He claims never to have made a painting strictly by imaginative means. In Walking Figure by Pool, a man strolls towards the diving board of a swimming pool. The previous diver’s legs are visible in the foreground. The main action, however, is in the background, between earth and sky. Two versions of the work are hung side by side in the academy building. One has pink palm trees against a blue sky; an otherwise identical rendering of the scene (Figure by a Pool) makes the sky bottle green, with a bare tree trunk standing for nature. There are no supplementary meanings; the “idea” behind the two versions derives solely from the changing light. In a statement on the subject of the value of figurative painting vis-a-vis the genre that displaced it, Doig has said: “All painting is conceptual. Every painting is an idea. Conceptual art just removes the pleasures of looking – colour and beauty, things like that.”

The Edinburgh exhibition serves as a Trinidad retrospective for Doig, with a score of large paintings, supplemented by oil sketches and other studies. Some have never previously been displayed, and few have been seen in the artist’s native country. Since several come from private collections, the show, which will travel to Montreal in 2014, offers an opportunity to look at large canvases that properly belong together but rarely hang side by side.

One example is the pair of non-identical twins, The Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), from about 2005, and Figures in a Red Boat, made slightly later. Taken together, they raise tantalising questions about the artist’s practice, particularly in relation to symbol or quasi-symbol. Are the symbols even there? In the former picture, six black boys are posed in a small boat amid gorgeous foliage, their reflections visible in a green sea. In the later version, the six have undergone some kind of anaemic transformation. They sit in identical postures to the “imaginary” black boys, but in a haze, with fragments of palm trees in the background. There are no human reflections, only the blood-red of the boat, as if dripping into the water beneath.

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Is this pairing political, or merely painterly? The question is hard to answer, something the viewer ought to be glad of. It is no doubt difficult to be a Scottish-Canadian artist on a Caribbean island without turning up a chunk of political ordnance here and there, but it would be a mistake to depend too heavily on hackneyed means of interpretation to explain the raison d’etre of Doig’s work.

In a generally thoughtful catalogue essay, Stéphane Aquin asserts rather ponderously that Doig understands Trinidad’s “postcolonial condition … ‘from the inside’, as attested to by the game of cricket, a legacy of the British regime now practised assiduously by the various communities”. Aquin, who is Canadian, is referring to the horizontal Paragon and the vertical Cricket Painting(Paragrand), another resplendant pairing that remains in the mind long after the eyes have turned away. The bowler appears to be female, though could be a teenage boy (in Cricket Painting, he/she is wearing a shift; in Paragon, apparently only shorts). To my eyes, the bodily articulation suggests femininity, and I like to think it was her vigorous barefoot bowling action, wonderfully rendered, more than sex, colour or historical root – in India, England, Africa or China – that caught the artist’s attention. A young girl (or boy) hurling a ball with all her might would be enchanting enough to inspire an artist with an aversion to “ideas” as such. Sometimes a googly is just a googly.

There are, besides, painterly puzzles to consider: in only one of the pair, Cricket Painting, is there a ball – a white disc right in the centre – and a wicket to defend. And what a wicket it is: a piece of multicoloured cloth cut straight from Gauguinand inserted into the picture, collage-style.

Doig no doubt loathes the frequency with which the last comparison arises, but it is hard to avoid. Other ancestral presences in his work include Pierre Bonnard, whom he admires for the way in which the French artist conveys the “mood” of faces, despite a lack of visible features. A less well known but no less plausible influence is the Canadian impressionist James Morrice (1865-1924) who, like Doig, had a Scottish background and also sought exotic inspiration. Expect to find Scottish critics picking nationalist hints from the prodigal’s canvases over the coming weeks. One verbal and artistic link to the home country resides in Doig’s habit of referring to himself as a “maker” of paintings – a description adopted by poets north of the border since the early 16th century (as in William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers”).

The title of the Edinburgh show, No Foreign Lands, derives from a remark made by another well-travelled native of Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” With Doig, living in the age of jet travel and the tired claim, “divides his time between … “, the statement takes on an opposing nuance. If there are no foreign lands, there is no homeland. To someone who emigrated twice before reaching the age of 10, all lands are likely to seem foreign, including the land of his birth. (The National Galleries of Scotland possess no works by Doig, and, now that his prices are inflated, are unlikely to be buying any soon.) A glance at his travel schedule of the last 25 years takes in not only the places mentioned, but Dusseldorf, where he holds a professorship, New York, London, and Briey-en-Forêt in Alsace, where he painted Corbusier’s “cité radieuse”, a mammoth apartment block.

He has said that his paintings “make no attempt to reflect setting”, but the Trinidad paintings – the cricket pictures among them – rich in local atmosphere, contradict him. He contradicts himself when he remarks that “most of my works made in Trinidad question my being there”. Fear of the word “orientalism” might be backing the painter into a defensive corner in a moment like this. But how could such a keen observer avoid oriental accents in this climate? People walk differently in the tropics, for one thing. A painting such as Lapeyrouse Wallrecords the fact, even though the solitary figure has his back to us, is wearing a hat and is holding a pink umbrella aloft against the sun. Some people in “foreign lands” have strange beliefs, and these are reflected in Man Dressed as Bat, which occupies one of Playfair’s broad, high walls, as well as various “jungle paintings” that feature human‑animal figures and suggest intimacy with a spirit world. The most directly “questioning” painting in the Edinburgh show is Man in Boat, in which a round-headed, unshaven figure – Doig, probably – dozes in the bow of a small boat; pink floppy hat shielding his eyes. It appears at first glance to be a harmless self-portrait – but what is that red-eyed black monster, almost human-scale, above the sleeper’s head, blotting out the sky? Is it a bird? A symbol, or quasi-symbol, more likely.

It is hard to see any such questioning attaching itself to Grande Rivière, yet another thrilling array of colour – subdued by evening light – and heavy air. Worldly interest is provided by a white horse, lazily hoofing its way along the bank. The best paintings avoid invitations to intellectual scrutiny – Doig charmingly says that he “distrusts” language – and focus on the observed world.

The catalogue, which contains an interview with the artist by Angus Cook and an essay by Keith Hartley, in addition to Aquin’s, prompts the sole complaint in connection with this inviting show. Instead of the peculiarly misjudged essay by the writer Hilton Als – an account of his hatred of Barbados and of his family, with no mention of painting – the editor of the volume might have given space to some reflections on the cultural milieu of Trinidad, an island that has nourished the writers VS Naipaul,Samuel Selvon and Derek Walcott, as well as a host of artists, musicians and actors. Walcott, whose Trinidad Theatre Workshop continues there, has repeatedly emphasised the broad‑ based ethnic mix of the island and its artistic milieu, of which the Scots-Canadian-Trinidadian is but the latest product.

“What is special about painting that makes the process so fulfilling for you?” Angus Cook asks Doig, to which he replies: “The paint.”

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