The Courtauld’s show is hugely rewarding in itself, while also allowing fascinating comparisons with other artists’ work
A review by Samuel Reilly for London’s Telegraph.
Paul Gauguin died in Tahiti in 1903, alone, in prison and all but forgotten back home. Peter Doig, by contrast, has now returned from his own tropical stint in Trinidad to tell the tale. The comparison is an uneasy one – but then, uneasy comparisons are the lifeblood of Doig’s paintings.
At the Courtauld Gallery, the Edinburgh-born painter’s first major exhibition since relocating to London in 2021 opens with a prime example. Night Studio (STUDIOFILM & RACQUET CLUB), from 2015, is a self-portrait of sorts – a monstrous-looking Doig stands in front of an earlier painting of a Trinidadian down-and-out (Stag, 2002-5), leaning back to copy the pose, the older man’s robe showing palimpsestically through his T-shirt.
Gauguin has always been a sort of unreliable touchstone for Doig – and at the Courtauld, one has the unparalleled opportunity to look at Doig in the context of Gauguin and his post-Impressionist peers. But Doig’s sense of his own position with respect to the exotic place in which he was partly raised is something far more compelling than his forebear’s ever was.
Never an outsider looking in, nor quite an insider looking out, but something in between and looking – as through this figure’s single, bulbous eye – God knows where. Of the 11 paintings on display at the Courtauld, six were begun in Trinidad and completed in London, and there is something curious about this – eyewitness accounts of events that have been doctored by memory.
Fishermen morph into calypso musicians in House of Music (Soca Boat, 2019-23); a vast and tremendous painting of a harlequin with Nordic skis, standing before the Matterhorn like Friedrich’s Wanderer, crowns the show.
One painting is, in every stage of its completion, a London painting – and what a work it is. Canal (2023) has us on the towpath of the Regent’s Canal, the murk of the water offset by the primary red with which Doig has incongruously painted the bridge. To the right, his son sits at the breakfast table, an apparition with a horrifying hand that stretches towards a plate of eggs.
Downstairs is a small, accompanying show of Doig’s etchings – responses to poems by his late friend Derek Walcott, which were in turn composed after paintings by Doig. “I love the place,” Walcott writes in one of them, “and wished I knew all its languages and observed its customs with one voice.” It is the mark of Doig’s greatness as an artist that his voice remains as unmistakably itself as ever, no matter where he ends up.
From tomorrow until May 29. Tickets: courtauld.ac.uk