Peter Doig at the Courtauld Gallery
Once Europe’s highest-priced living painter, Peter Doig has now been given the honour of an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, the first contemporary artist to be granted such an opportunity since the institution’s 2021 reopening. That was the year in which this much-heralded painter took the decision to relocate to London, having spent some 20 years on the island of Trinidad. Featuring 12 paintings and a further 19 works on paper, the exhibition enables the public to view Scottish-born Doig’s work in close proximity to the Courtauld’s impressionist and post-impressionist canvases, attesting to the influence of Gaugin and Cézanne.
Peter Doig’s peripatetic background has long since been at the beating heart of his artistic practice. As a boy, he lived in both Trinidad and Canada, thanks to his accountant father’s desire for pastures new. In 2000 he returned to the former, having been invited to join a residential programme in Port of Spain alongside his friend, the 1998 Turner Prize winner, Chris Ofili. Two years later, the artist made the island his home again, establishing a studio and bringing up five children there with his first wife, Bonnie Kennedy. Of the 12 paintings on show at the Courtauld, six were started in Trinidad and completed in London.
This small but compelling exhibition opens with the painter’s life-size self-portrait, Night Studio (Studiofilm and Racquet Club) of 2015. One finds him standing before his large painting, Stag (2002-05), the scene evidently artificially illuminated in his studio. Another rather surrealistic canvas shows a woman lying in a yellow swimming costume on Trinidad’s Maracas Bay beach with a male figure some distance away facing the other direction. Rather than a blazing sun, one finds a full moon casting its silver reflection onto the ocean horizon. Painting on an Island (Carrera) (2019) depicts a frieze-like view of a painter at work overlooking a nocturnal sea. Carrera is a prison island off Trinidad’s coast, which Peter Doig visited in 2015 after discovering some inmates had taken up painting. The artist holds a deep affection for Trinidad’s rich musical culture, as comes to the fore in Music (2 Trees) (2019) where calypso singers serenade a woman (his wife) passing on a donkey, an image immediately recalling Gaugin.
Entering the second room, one finds the monumental Bather (2019-23). Apparently based on a 1942 photograph of actor Robert Mitchum, and reminiscent of Cézanne, it depicts a young man standing dressed for summer in front of a decidedly cold-looking seascape, a characteristic act of dislocation by Doig. Another vast canvas, Alpinist (2019-22) sees the painter – a lifelong skier after childhood years in Canada – highlighting the majestic beauty and danger pervading the snow-covered landscape. The intrepid figure, clad in the costume of a harlequin, channels Picasso’s symbolic usage of the character as an artistic outsider.
Music Shop (2019-23) might be interpreted as an act of homage to the music of Trinidad. Shadow (Winston McGarland Bailey – a friend of the artist), the late calypso musician who modernised the genre, stands dramatically in the doorway of a music shop in Port of Spain with sea views reflected in the windows. Hatted and identifiable by the skeleton emblem of his black coat, he evokes thoughts of the inevitable passing of time. The rhythms and melodies of Trinidad continue to inspire Doig in House of Music (Soca Boat) (2019-23). Originating from a photograph of fishermen, the artist transforms the seafarers into Caribbean singers and guitarists performing in the moonlight. He named the work after a song by Shadow called Dat Soca Boat (1979). There’s an ethereal quality with a sense of the music fading away on the sea breeze, perhaps alluding to the peril of the ocean. Doig has an uncanny ability in his paintings to summon somewhere between actual places and the realms of imagination.
The exhibition concludes with a London canvas painted by the artist only this year. Canal is set in Regent’s Canal; a red-brick bridge takes centre stage in the brooding urban scene. The work stemming from a birthday card Doig made for his young son, one finds the blond boy rather incongruously sitting at a table on the towpath, his fried egg breakfast before him.
A small display of etchings by Doig can be explored on a floor below. Created in artistic conversation with the poems of his late friend, Derek Walcott, they in general lack the dynamism of the paintings for all their sensitivity. Overall, however, the Scotsman’s first major exhibition in the UK since relocating to London in 2021 conjures visions that succeed in unsettling and enthralling, whilst attesting to the influences of his artistic heroes at the Courtauld.
Peter Doig is at the Courtauld Gallery from 10th February until 29th May 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.