PETER DOIG’S paintings are often in the news. Since 2007, when his “White Canoe” sold at Sotheby’s for £5.7m ($11.2m), then a record for a living European artist, his works have consistently sold for staggering prices. But the auction hype and print reproductions do a disservice, turning his paintings into lacklustre symbols of a frothy market. Indeed, little prepares viewers for the experience of seeing these canvasses in person. They are remarkable: epic, sumptuously colourful and often mesmerisingly beautiful.
Many have been included in “No Foreign Lands”, a survey of Mr Doig’s later paintings and works on paper, which opens at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh on August 3rd. Most of the works in this exhibition—his first big one in Scotland—are from his time in Trinidad, where he has lived with his family since 2002. Born in 1959 in Edinburgh, he grew up in Trinidad and Canada, and studied art in London. But a brief spell back in Trinidad in 2000 proved inspiring. Visions of the Caribbean island kept cropping up in his work, so he decided to move there. The show takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” This neatly captures Mr Doig’s peripatetic life and outsider’s eye.
“Visually, sonically, it is a fascinating place,” says Mr Doig during a break from hanging the show. Affable and unexpectedly humble, he marvels at how Trinidad’s urban and natural worlds rub up against each other, creating odd juxtapositions. Unlike his earlier landscapes of Canada, with their crisp and often snowy wooded scenes, his island paintings feel more lush and humid, in hues of pavement-baking okra, grassy greens, inky blues and black. Lonely canoes glide along still bodies of water; barely clothed kids play cricket; a lone man carries a dead pelican. The images feel like memories, caught in a realm between dreams and wakefulness.
With their impressionistic brushstrokes, inventive colours and exotic subjects, these paintings invite comparisons with Paul Gauguin, who similarly fled Europe’s stuffiness for an island idyll. But Mr Doig’s works pay tribute to all of his heroes. A man walking along a pavement in “Lapeyrouse Wall” (2004) evokes the sun-bleached stillness of Edward Hopper. Small boats drifting on dark seas at night recall the lurid gloom of Edvard Munch. His expressive brushwork summons Edouard Manet; the flat planes of background colour nod to Henri Matisse.
All of this is distinctly unstylish. Painting—and certainly figurative painting—has long been deemed passé, a medium too tired to comment on these complicated times. Mr Doig came of age in London at the same time as the Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, most of whom prefer irony over paint. Yet he chuckles at the thought that he is working in a so-called “dead” medium. “Who says these things, really?”
The show in Edinburgh, which will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts Montreal in 2014, is arranged thematically. One room is dedicated to his use of geometric shapes, another considers his approach to colour. Alongside Mr Doig’s large canvasses are a number of smaller studies—prints, drawings—in which he works through his ideas. A single image of, say, a girl in a tree will inspire a series of interpretations in different colours and styles. Vitrines display the ephemera he uses for visual ideas—many of his paintings are sparked by personal photographs. He rarely paints a single work start to finish, but rather “flits from one thing to the next”, teasing out motifs and moods in a process that can take years.
A whiff of lavender pervades the gallery with his newest work. These paintings are “hot off the easel”, jokes Keith Hartley, chief curator at the Scottish National Gallery (the artist uses lavender oil as a solvent). Mr Doig confesses that deadlines create the best conditions for him to paint, and that he has “no qualms hanging or transporting paintings that are still wet”.
For Mr Doig the hardest part is beginning a painting—a challenge made harder still by the high prices his works command at auction (a world he dismisses as “a game, really”). “The easier the conditions are to make a painting, the harder it is to make a good painting,” he says. “No one can help you. It’s still all down to you.”