Wednesday Art Idol

Peter Doig: painting from memory
Art | 14 April 2021
Text Finn Blythe

Peter Doig, Grande Riviere, 2001-2002, courtesy of Victoria Miro

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
WEDNESDAY ART IDOL: Careers of artists with unparalleled vision

One of the most important figurative painters working today, Peter Doig is a master in hallucinatory scenes of magic realism. Born in Scotland but raised between Trinidad, Canada and London, the expansive, dream-like settings of Doig’s work reflect distinct chapters in his peripatetic life, imbuing the autobiographical with a universal appreciation for natural beauty and an uncanny twist.

Using found images posters, magazine clippings, album covers and film stills as well as his own memory, Doig’s paintings blur the distinction between reality and artifice. The landscapes he painted while studying at Chelsea College of Art for instance, were drawn from his childhood memories of Canadian wilderness, skiing over vertiginous peaks or walking through thick pine forests. Lacking the draftsmanship skills ordinarily associated with painting, photography provided Doig a way around the issue. Not only did painting from photographs come to define his process, it gave him the freedom to experiment with composition, to play with scale, colour and proportion in a way that heightened the otherworldly aura of his paintings.

Peter Doig, White Creep, 1995-6, courtesy Victoria-Miro

Films have been another important component to Doig’s maelstrom of visual stimuli and have directly inspired some of his key works. In one of his most celebrated paintings, Canoe Lake (1997) for example, a canoe sits above its own reflection on the mirror-like surface of the water. What at first appears blissfully tranquil grows increasingly eerie upon closer inspection, and it’s little surprise to learn the painting’s inspiration came from Sean Cunningham’s cult slasher film, Friday the 13th, in which a terrified young girl, having witnessed several murders, escapes to the  sanctuary of the lake.

No introduction to Doig’s work is complete without reference to Trinidad, the Caribbean island where Doig briefly lived as a young boy and returned to live and work in 2002. It is where the artist recalibrated much of his subject matter,  transferring the island’s sense of edenic paradise into every brushstroke of his work. In paintings like Grande Riviere (2002), the first of Doig’s works set in Trinidad, Pelican (Stag) (2003) and Lapeyrouse Wall (2004), the artist drew on a combination of memory and photographs to produce scenes of tropical bliss. Crucially for Doig, these works combine physical experience with emotive recollection and are therefore not to be taken as literal representations but rather meditations on the concept of memory itself.

Peter Doig, Canoe-Lake, 1997, courtesy Victoria-Miro

Concrete Cabins (1992-96)

In the early 90s, while the art world’s focus seemed entirely consumed by Britain’s new YBA generation, Peter Doig seemed increasingly at odds with the neo-conceptualism of the day. Next to a tiger shark,  submerged in formaldehyde, painting seemed old hat. Undeterred, Doig continued to quietly hone his craft, producing a body of work in the early 90s that is among his very best. 

In the summer of 1991 the painter visited the Unité d’Habitation in Briey, northeastern France (one of five post-war housing projects developed by legendary Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier between 1947-53) and was immediately struck by the view of the building from the dense surrounding forest. Like the canoe, which became a leitmotif in Doig’s paintings as a symbol of Canadian  wilderness and identity, this particular building formed the recurring subject of his Concrete Cabins series, painted between 1991-98.

As with so many of Doig’s works, each painting in the series carries a sinister undertone. Like in his previous work, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), Concrete Cabins sees the geometric forms of Le Corbusier’s masterpiece overlain with the thick, interweaving  vertical lines of dense forest – almost obliterating the building from view.. There is a sense of foreboding here, of suspense. The composition is beguiling and positions the viewer directly in the (rather menacing) wood. We spy the modernist masterpiece through the thicket of branches and trees, the narrative is elusive but we are up to no good. Tension is built around the polarisition of nature and culture, organic and man-made, the known and unknown. Concrete Cabins elicits a subtle sense of haunting that gets under the skin. 

Peter Doig, Concrete Cabin, 1994, courtesy Victoria-Miro

Top image: Peter Doig, Grande Riviere, 2001-2002, courtesy of Victoria Miro


Read Next