With their saturated colors and impressive size, Peter Doig’s words have a hypnotic effect on the viewer, and have been enchanting the Foundation Beyeler since November. A meeting with one of the great masters of our time.
Doig’s paintings radiate an expressionistic, haunting atmosphere; there’s also something symbolic, dreamlike and melancholic to them. Subtly combining cut-out shadows and chromatic waves, Doig creates idyllic landscapes, with ghost like figures reminiscent of the landscapes of Toronto, London and Trinidad, where he lived for over a decade.
Why did you choose painting as your primary medium?
Probably because it seemed like a niche, a somewhat marginal activity and an area where you could have your voice heard. Almost like becoming a poet. Painting also has something incredibly primitive, a caveman side to it, when you’re alone with your canvas for hours on end, adding brushstrokes furiously, without really knowing what you’re doing or where you’re going. Painting means moving forward on a surface, getting lost, transcending yourself and becoming physically submerged. And the feeling of a permanent challenge, so that you’re never satisfied when you look at masterpieces by past artists. How could it ever be possible to achieve the level of Velázquez or Courbet? You have to maintain a certain humility, try to get closer to it and surpass yourself, by producing works that surprise you. In that, painting is a fascinating field.
Which artists inspire you?
When I started to paint, I loved Francis Bacon, Edward Burra and German painters like Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. I was also interested in figurative artists; I still am. I admire Bonnard’s work, and Gauguin’s technique and palette. Courbet, an extraordinarily modern painter, has been a strong influence. It was amazing to have inaugurated my exhibition concurrently with the one the Fondation Beyeler organized for him. There’s something nearly absurd about having my paintings alongside such a master. I was finally able to look at paintings that I had admired for 30 years, but only in reproductions.
Is there anything autobiographical in your work?
Like many artists, I collect my world of images, thousands of things I’ve seen, felt , noted, stored, memories, from which I draw free associations – my terror as well, like the day when one of my daughters got lost in the jungle. All this fills up my personal album of formal references.
How do you think people perceive your work?
I don’t really know. The sensorial, even instinctive reaction to any given work may vary, for viewing a painting is a complex process. It seems that looking and focusing are essential to a viewer’s approach. I think that people also see a certain form of purity and humor in my paintings. What’s funny is that the works that I think are the most unfinished, boring and even ridiculous are often the ones that have the greatest impact on the public.
How do you work?
I never finish a painting at one go. I like to start a canvas, then put it aside. I usually start several at once, moving back and forth, returning to a work that I haven’t touched for some time – back and forth, returning to a work that I haven’t touched for some time – because sometimes I am completely blocked with a canvas and don’t know what to do with it. I need a canvas to stay a fairly long time in my studio so that I can look at it often and take new decisions, modify it several times. In short, it doesn’t take me six years to paint a work, but it takes me six years to decide how to finish it!
In 2007, White Canoe sold for €8.4 million, a record for a living artist; how do you feel about that?
That price was totally unexpected. I was utterly stunned. For a while, I became fairly cynical about what was happening to my work, then I decided to lighten up: there was a time I was selling paintings to survive. In the end, everyone has a price. I don’t feel involved in these auctions, I’d rather keep my distance. What bothers me, however, are the consequences that this secondary art market may have, especially in that it eliminates the direct relationship between artist and collector. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to keep track of my works. For example, for this exhibition, held in one of the most extraordinary places an artist could ever hope for, I would have really liked to have included some of my earliest paintings.
For the first time in an exhibition, visitors can discover some of your prints alongside your paintings. You also created an in-situ mural. How did this come about?
Works on paper are essential to my process. They are experimental and sometimes prefigure my oil paintings. Visitors can therefore see the various steps of my creative approach. In my prints, I test various ambiences that I’d like to express in my large works. The idea for the mural came from the director of the Foundation, Samuel Keller, who had seen the one that I painted in a New York nightclub. I agreed to take on the challenge of reproducing a similar work, with the help of seven of my students. The mural is based on a 2004 paintings, House of Pictures (Carrera), also in the show. The work, which deals with vision and its illusionist aspect, is even more striking in this context.