This retrospective shows that, when executed by a master, figurative and landscape painting still have a huge amount to say.
A question that might strike you on the way to Peter Doig's new show is why it is at Tate Britain rather than Tate Modern. To pigeonhole Doig as a British painter – he is a Canadian who lives and works in Trinidad – plays fast and loose with the facts. It also sells Doig short, the key to his art being that it, like he, belongs nowhere.
The explanation, maybe, is that the thing Doig does is emphatically not modern, or at least not in the way we have come to use the word in the past 20 years. It has been possible to paint in that time, although what has mattered has been the idea expressed rather than the means of expressing it. Except among older Academicians and in cut-off parts of Cornwall, painting well disappeared long ago, swept away in the conceptual revolt against skill and craft. And yet here is Doig – a Chelsea graduate, YBA and tireless clubber – not just painting well but painting figuratively.
How has he got away with it? The only answer that suggests itself – and it, too, seems laughably old-fashioned – is that Doig is an extraordinarily good painter. Like most good painters, he has a mood to which he returns again and again. While artists' biographies aren't generally a good way of approaching their art, the fact that Doig's childhood was spent between Trinidad and Canada seems unignorable. Most of the pictures allude to one or other place, the tropical exoticism of a Caribbean island or the Presbyterian chill of winter in Ontario. So extreme are the differences between these that it seems hardly possible for Doig to have lived in them both, and that impossibility is at the core of his work.
It expresses itself, mostly, as yearning. At art school in London in the 1990s, Doig started painting pictures he described as "homely", suggesting something both plain and "of the home". Hitch Hiker (1990) is a Hopper-ish landscape-with-lorry, painted on postal bags whose stencilled legends show through the glaze. It's an image looking for somewhere to settle, and Doig soon found it in loss. The House that Jacques Built (1992) puts us in the place where, as viewers, we still stand all these years later – on the outside looking in. Jacques' house is falling down; the Corbusier tower blocks of the Concrete Cabin series are utopian ruins. Doig's canvases show us places we can't go, places he can't go back to.
This might all seem nostalgic in a Housman kind of way were it not for Doig's brilliance with paint. His work isn't just about the exquisite pain of things half-remembered, it is made in a medium half-forgotten by everyone but him. Window Pane (1993) is not what it says it is – less Alberti's open window than a wall, a thing we're both invited and forbidden to see through. It is the depiction of the frozen surface of a pond and a flat, solid, non-recessive slab of pigment. A diptych, Ski Jacket, takes this paradox further by playing Japanese games with perspective. And that battle, constantly waged, between surface and depth, things hidden and revealed, is where Doig really wins out.
But even that is not the whole story. If Doig recalls lost things in a lost medium, he does so with forgotten skill. One room of this retrospective is given over to studies on paper for his larger canvases, and these studies show him to be both a brilliant draughtsman and (even worse in YBA terms) concerned with the history of art. No drawing clowns' noses on Goyas here: Doig's engagement with Gauguin or Twombly is that of one painter with another, the following of a great tradition.
All this makes his success phenomenal, and not just in terms of having a show at the Tate. I have to stress that Doig is neither a sentimentalist nor a pasticheur, that his paintings, while practised and informed, are not historicist. They are old and new in the way that Chardin's or Manet's were old and new. To those who have mourned the death of painting – who have felt that it was impossible to paint properly in a postmodern world – Doig holds out a hope of survival.