MONTREAL — At first glance, Peter Doig’s colourful paintings seem to be channelling Gauguin and the impressionists into the crumbling certainties of the 21st century.
But no, Doig doesn’t bypass the 20th century — he’s got Matisse, Bonnard and Tom Thomson on his palette, along with colour-field painters like Mark Rothko.
“Doig embraces everything, soaks it all in and churns it out in a way that is his alone,” said Stéphane Aquin, co-curator of Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, opening to the general public Saturday, Jan. 25 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “He is a dazzling painter.”
Doig is a global art star, one of those who have restored painting to the pantheon of contemporary art by making it relevant to a contemporary sensibility. “He elides past and present, personal and shared memories, the actual and the imagined, artifice and reality,” according to a piece written by museum director Nathalie Bondil and her colleagues at the two Scottish museums whose curators worked with Aquin.
No Foreign Lands is an exhibition that can’t be missed. Forty of Doig’s huge and sensuous paintings grace the rooms of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, which was built in 1912 and is the oldest building in the museum complex.
Contemporary galleries aren’t always built to show paintings, Doig said at Tuesday’s media preview. “These old galleries with their wooden doorways are perfect.”
Cricket Painting (Paragrand), with its vibrant oranges and greens, could have been painted by Gauguin in 19th-century Tahiti — except that Gauguin painted a mythical world with just a hint of colonial reality. Doig has his subjects playing a game still popular throughout the former British Empire.
And where Gauguin’s Tahitians are solid as monuments, Doig’s figures in his Trinidad paintings are ghostly — for instance, the translucent figure standing in the background of Paragrand. This theatricality is the 21st-century part of Doig’s paintings, where the boundaries between past and present, reality and artifice are fluid, creating a lot of meaning to contemplate.
The exhibition also includes 100 of Doig’s preparatory drawings, in which he tests his motifs — usually figures — in different compositions of the same setting.
The setting for this exhibition is Trinidad, where Doig has lived since 2002 — with regular travels to London, New York and Düsseldorf, where he teaches. Doig is a traveller; the son of a shipping executive, he was born in Scotland and lived in Trinidad until coming to Quebec in 1966 as a seven-year-old.
Doig spent about eight years in Baie-d’Urfé and the Eastern Townships before moving to Toronto. Hockey was and continues to be his passion. He plays whenever he can, and still listens to Habs games on the radio.
“I love the game because it is so frustratingly difficult, but within this exist moments of fluidity,” Doig writes, adding that it provides a person in a lonely profession with a way to work with others and make friends.
Guy Lafleur and Réjean Houle presented him with a sweater at the media preview, with boyhood hero Yvan Cournoyer’s name stitched on the back.
Doig left Canada for art school in London in 1979, but returned to Montreal in 1986. He was a struggling artist, working as a colour mixer and painter for a film scene company.
Rent in Montreal was cheap, he told The Gazette at the media preview, but he could live even more cheaply in London, where he shared apartments and studios and his friends working in nightclubs let him in for free.
But “there was no context for a painter” in 1990s London, where ideas-based art influenced by Jeff Koons — who made sculptures of common objects — was in fashion, Doig said. He began to paint the Canadian landscape of Thomson, David Milne and the Group of Seven from memory and his archive of postcards and photographs. “I could do this better at a distance,” he told The Gazette.
In an interview with Canadian Art magazine, he said that distance allows an image “to develop on its own, outside its original context.”
The Canadian paintings led to Doig’s big break, he told Scottish art critic Angus Cook in an interview for the exhibition catalogue. A painting of a man on a frozen lake won a prize, and he was featured in Frieze magazine. Although one of the editors likened the painting “to a Christmas card painted by mouth” and told Doig that “if we realized your paintings were like this, we wouldn’t have published the article,” the coverage gave him visibility and led to offers.
And he got the last laugh: in 2007, the 1991 painting White Canoe sold at an auction for $11.3 million, a record for a living European artist.
Doig told Cook that he couldn’t understand why conceptual art excluded painting. Every painting is an idea and a process, he said. “Conceptual art just removes the pleasures of looking — colour and beauty.”
In 2000, Doig was invited to Trinidad for an artist’s residency. He liked it so much that he settled there with his family in 2002.
Doig said he felt anxious about living in a former British colony that has been independent only since 1962. He didn’t want to be a tourist, and he didn’t want to paint the Caribbean island as exotic. (The title of the exhibition comes from Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”)
Doig joined the local art scene, starting a film club in his studio and painting posters for the movies, some of which are on display in the MMFA exhibition.
In Trinidad, Doig started to paint directly from observation, but continues to insert figures that come from his archive of images. The man portrayed as the Walking Figure by Pool is based on a photograph of the Dada artist Francis Picabia. A pelican motif recurs in Pelican (Stag); the man dragging an invisible bird comes from a photo of an Indian man with a fishing net.
Doig’s figures reappear in different paintings — including the various versions of Figures in a Red Boat, 100 Years Ago (Carrera) and other works — and in the many preparatory drawings where he experiments with composition.
The canoe is a subject that Doig has been painting for 25 years, moving from Canadian lakes to the waters off the coast of Trinidad. The long canoe is also a handy compositional device. In 100 Years Ago (Carrera), it divides the composition horizontally, producing bands of colour that recall the colour-field painting of the 1960s.
Doig’s work is extremely desired by museums throughout North America, and getting this exhibition in Montreal is a coup, Aquin said.
He said Doig produces relatively few paintings, and that the artist isn’t interested in doing a show unless it is a significant landmark that allows him to see and understand the direction in which his work is taking him.
No Foreign Lands, which opened in Edinburgh last summer, comes between a mid-career retrospective at London’s Tate and other major European museums in 2008 and an exhibition of Doig’s work that will be produced for major U.S. centres in about five years, Aquin said.