Peter Doig: Memory Traces
Martin Gayford
May 2015

Peter Doig’s reputation continues to grow, with major shows dedicated to his work this year in Basel and Venice. He talks to Apollo about photography, memory, and how the past returns in his paintings.

Peter Doig (b. 1959) was a little late for our appointment, but he had a good excuse. He’d been completing a painting in the middle of the night. And, of course, finishing a picture or knowing when it is finished is a delicate matter. Lucian Freud's criterion was elusive: ‘When I start to feel I’m painting someone else’s picture’. Doig’s rule of thumb is down to earth and visceral. ‘I guess I feel a painting is finished when it stops bugging me, when I stop thinking about it – or start thinking about it in a different way, start looking at it. I got to that stage last night, at about four o’clock in the morning. It’s taken quite a long rime. But it’s not a problem anymore; it doesn’t make me want to vomit.’

At 55, Doig is one or the most renowned painters. His recent show at the Fondation Beyeler (now at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk; until 16 August) hung alongside a major Gauguin exhibition; a mid-career retrospective at the Tate – an accolade for any artist – was accorded him in 2008 when he was still in his 40s; and during this year’s Venice Biennale he will show a selection of new works which he summarises laconically as: ‘Five or six large paintings and quite a number of smaller paintings: some cityscapes, some walls, some figures, some animals.’ Auction prices place him in a stratospheric category among living artists. In 2007, White Canoe (1990-91; Fig. 2), sold at Sotheby’s for $11.3 million, a result that, as he told the Observer, also caused a visceral reaction. It made him feel ‘nauseous’, more it seems from shock than disgust: ‘That someone should have put their hand in their pocket and spent that much money on a painting of mine seemed so unconnected to anything that I ever did.’

What Doig thinks constantly about, and is excited by, is painting. His physical reaction to a work not yet being completely right is not that unusual among dedicated painters. Joan Miro, for example, reported that if a picture of his was ‘a millimetre our’, it gave him a migraine. Doig evidently shares that level of preoccupation. ‘Most painters are obsessed with painting, and looking at other people’s paintings. You feel you are part of a tradition – even those painters who are mostly anti-tradition are still part of a tradition.’

On the other hand, he is unwilling to comment on the most extraordinary aspect of contemporary painting: that the tradition survives, and indeed flourishes, at all. It is now getting on for two centuries since Paul Delaroche first declared painting to be dead in 1839. Why, I ask, does painting still persist? ‘I don't think that's really a question for painters. Once you’ve made the decision to paint, it isn’t really relevant. It’s a matter for outsiders.’ In other words, he agrees with Barnett Newman’s famous observation, ‘Aesthetics is for painting as ornithology is for the birds’: It's up to critics and art historians to work out what's going on.

One thing that has obviously been developing, ever since 1839, is photography; the sight of the first daguerreotype is presumed to have prompted Delaroche’s premature death notice. But instead of one killing the other, the two have become symbiotic, as Doig points out: ‘Photography has been used as a tool for painting for many years. It fed off painting and vice versa. But to me it’s more interesting when it’s not about simply copying, or making photorealism. You see so many people using the photographic world in painting, and I would say that 90 percent of the time it's so mundane. How do you transcend that?’

Doig’s own work is evidently related to photography, but in subtle and elusive ways. ‘The photograph is an aid really. If I relied totally on my own drawing, my work would be very, very slow and very, very stiff because I’d have to square up. Also, in a photograph, you can sometimes see body language, or a particular silhouette, but to see this in real life would be difficult because it's momentary… I’m sure at some time I probably have painted a whole scene from a photograph, but it’s very rare. At the moment I’m using just figures, or an element of a face.’

In the past, Doig has used elements from various sources, altered and amalgamated in complex ways. Gasthofzur Muldentalsperre (2000-02; Fig. 3) had as its starting-point an Edwardian postcard of the German pier in question, to which he added two figures – these were of Doig himself and a friend dressed in costumes from a production of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which the artist had once worked on. These figures are the actors on stage, while the pier and the lake behind are the backdrop. But the picture is much more than a painted photo-collage; it is a complex metamorphosis of the images. Colour has also been applied to what was originally a monochrome view, but in quite unexpected ways. The stone of the pier is multicoloured in the manner of gemstones or fruit jellies; the sky is thickly sown with stars, but also mottled with yellow stains like those caused by damp and age; the waters of the lake, a deep midnight blue, are flecked with lights, as is the road in the foreground. In other words, the picture has become chromatically rich and enigmatic.

These hues, and indeed the whole process of transformation, are not programmatic but intuitive. Doig has said his pictures grow through a series of mistakes; you could also call them discoveries. ‘I'm sure some artists can mix their pots of pigment in the morning and plan it all, but with me it’s more: what colour shall I use next? You’ll see this strange brown next to indigo – mix the two together and there it is. That’s why it’s important the studio is active… One of the great pleasures of painting is learning about the material... Once the paint comes out of the tubes and starts being mixed in the studio – with many different pots and variations of colour – that’s how paintings are made really: from the coincidence of seeing one colour against the next.’

But what is it about a certain photograph that draws him to it? ‘I suppose it’s the attitude in an image or it could be the ambiance, feeling, mood – all these things – or it could be a silhouette. I don't know what it is, just something personal.’ He continues: ‘I guess I collect images. For example, I'm making a painting now of a nude woman that I found in a naturist magazine. I bought it when I was at St Martin’s in 1980, and I'm only using it now. It’s just a particularly striking pose, a pose I like really.’

Doig’s paintings may coalesce around an image he has found, or alternatively one he has taken himself. A sequence of remarkable pictures from the 1990s – the Concrete Cabin series – was based on shots he took of a building by Le Corbusier, Unité d’habitation de Briey-en-Forêt, during a visit in 1991 (Fig. 4). In this series too, the paintings metamorphosed into something very different. The modernist squares of Le Corbusier’s block, with their primary colours and geometry are seen through the dark vegetation of the forest. It is like looking at a Mondrian through the leaves of an Altdorfer – or the skeins of paint in a Jackson Pollock.

There is also a powerful but obscure emotional tone: a hint of menace or threat perhaps? ‘That’s not true of the paintings I’m doing now so much, but at one time I was making paintings that felt as if they put the viewer in a voyeuristic position – the position of an intruder, traveller, or hunter. That was something I was trying to do with the paintings in the forest.’ That sensation, of seeing a house or human habitation from the woods or the wilderness is one that everybody must have had at one time or another. And memory is one of the fundamental themes of Doig’s paintings. ‘Compared to some artists’ work’, he reflects, ‘mine is very much connected to things I’ve remembered. You recall things, and then you add them to a painting. It’s as simple as that. Some people don’t do that. They deal with the present in their work, although maybe if you are making a purely abstract painting you can deal with memory as well – colour, place, the shape of something you’ve seen’.

However, his paintings are seldom to do with anything so straightforward as a single event he has experienced. They may contain his own experiences, but their true subject seems to be the feeling of remembering something – that sensation we call déjà vu. Doig once told the critic and art historian Richard Shiff: ‘People have confused my paintings with being just about my own memories. Of course we cannot escape these. But I am more interested in the idea of memory.’ His works, it seems, have had this quality from early on. ‘Once a Japanese woman said that my paintings seemed very familiar to her. That was never my intention, but then maybe that’s what I was doing subconsciously: connecting with things that were familiar to people.’

It was, it seems, that feeling of familiarity that drew him back to Trinidad, where he has now been working for a decade and a half. ‘I’d lived there as a child for almost six years and I went back in 2000 to do an artists’ residency. Going back without really knowing what to expect, returning to this postcolonial place, might have been difficult. But I was very much welcomed. I remembered so much, although I hadn’t gone with any anticipation of that at all. It really struck me.'

That feeling of remembering, for Doig, was linked to seeing images later in his childhood. ‘My father was an avid amateur photographer, so there were always these carousels of slides of our years in Trinidad that I often used to look at.’ Once he had moved to the West Indies, he found that ‘my paintings started changing, they started becoming influenced by my being there’. That effect, however, is not necessarily so direct as simply painting the light and vegetation. ‘At the moment I’m doing a painting of the interior of my studio, which is in a big old rum factory. There’s nothing tropical about the painting, but something about it is Trinidadian’.

Although Doig’s success over the last 25 years has been spectacular, it took him a considerable time to find himself as an artist. In that, as in several other respects, he resembles Gauguin. Doig was born in 1959 in Edinburgh, and brought up first in Trinidad then in Canada (Gauguin spent his early childhood in Peru). In 1979, he travelled to London to study art first at Wimbledon, then at Central St Martin’s – carrying little in the way of artistic baggage. ‘Growing up in Canada and before in Port of Spain I wasn’t really exposed to painting very much. I didn’t feel that I was close to any real tradition. We did have oil paintings in the house, which my dad had bought by local artists, mainly Trinidadian, so I was kind of familiar with the surfaces of paintings including some quite abstract ones.’ His subsequent journey to the centre of the art world took a decade, and he started his explorations not with what was considered cutting-edge, but with what appealed to him.

One of the first artists Doig was interested in was Edward Burra, a somewhat neglected figure whose work – haunting, disturbing, influenced by Surrealism – does not fall neatly into any stylistic category (rather like Doig’s, in fact). Next, he travelled to Berlin to follow up an interest in the Expressionist group known as Die Brücke, and Christian Schad, an exponent of realism at once sharp-edged and enigmatic. At St Martin’s he was taught by abstract painters of the ‘50s, such as Henry Mundy and Alan Reynolds. A little later, Doig remembers, he and his contemporaries became interested in the Pictures Generation: a loose group of artists who emerged in New York in the ‘70s – Richard Prince, Jack Goldstein and Sherrie Levine among them – whose work was based on appropriating photographic images.

By the mid ‘80s, Doig had learned about expressive ways of using paint, both abstract and figurative, and was intrigued by the idea of using photographs as a source. But his mature style had yet to emerge. In 1986, he moved back to Canada, and it was there that he found himself artistically. ‘Seeing certain things there had an impact. There’s a Canadian artist called Paterson Ewen who had a big exhibition in Toronto. That had an effect on the way I thought one could make paintings. He was making huge paintings of things like weather systems, which would have seemed incredibly boring when I was younger… It took me by surprise; I hadn’t gone to Canada with any plan, but when I came back I was loaded with information. At that point I started thinking about the weather, how you could look at the weather as paint: that crept into my work.’

Indeed, northern climatic conditions in particular were one of the most remarkable aspects of Doig’s work in the 1990s; he became a painter of winter in a line that goes back to Monet and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but seemed able to find novel ways of turning snow – its soft whiteness and blankness – into paint surfaces apparently as matt and absorbent as blotting paper (one notable painting of the period was entitled Blotter [1993; Fig. 7]). Pictures such as this, and also Window Pane (1993; Fig. 6) and Ski Jacket (I 994; Fig. 5) are filled with a sense of place, even though the visual source may not have been a photograph of Canada at all. Ski Jacket, for example, was derived from an image of a Japanese winter sports resort. Doig changed the original format of the photograph, seen in a Toronto newspaper, from tall and narrow to wide and panoramic, and filled it with tiny figures – even smaller than Bruegel’s skaters – slipping and sliding on the slopes.

Finishing a painting is demanding as well as delicate, and the painter has to be aware of false dawns. Doig had had just such an experience with the recent work he’d been wrestling with until the early hours. He had begun it, he explained, ‘ages ago’. Last November, he had taken it to Basel intending to include it in the exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler. ‘I thought I'd finished it. But when we put it on the wall, I realised I had to do more work.

In fact, I’ve completely repainted it, but you can still see what’s underneath. You could never paint a painting like that from scratch.’ So the picture is now a palimpsest, containing ghostly traces of its own creation, beneath the surface but still visible. You might say that Doig’s whole output is made up of such phantoms: memories and false memories, images laid upon images, creative discoveries and accidents.