World-renowned painter Peter Doig: ‘In the studio, anything can happen’
Financial Times
Peter Aspden
14 February 2020

In the climax to the 1980 American slasher movie Friday the 13th, which would spawn a bloody flurry of sequels, television shows and video games worth more than half-a-billion pounds, a man is decapitated by the film’s heroine, who is in turn suddenly dragged into the depths of a lake by a hideously disfigured aggressor.

In between the two gruesome scenes, there is a brief and startlingly beautiful shot of the resting heroine alone in a canoe, her arm hanging limply towards the water’s crystal-clear surface.

It was this lyrical interlude, rather than the mayhem enveloping it, that caught the eye of Peter Doig when he saw the movie. “The film is not worth watching,” Doig tells me dismissively in his east London studio and living space. “But I was so surprised by that scene. I wondered, has the art director been looking at Munch, or is it just a coincidence?”

The image stayed with Doig, and it would become a key motif in his later work, most notably in “White Canoe” (1990-91), a technical tour de force of dramatic abstraction, and more explicitly still in “Canoe Lake” (1997-98), in which it is turned into a menacing tableau of acidic greens.

Doig is one of the most renowned figurative painters in the world, and his work has often been compared with that of Edvard Munch. But the mediation of the Norwegian master’s nightmarish visions through an undistinguished piece of popular culture shows that the influence can be both obvious and oblique.

Like many of Doig’s late baby-boomer contemporaries — he was born in 1959 — the richness of the era’s music and movies has played as strong a role in his cultural formation as Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, the painters to whom he is often compared.

The most remarkable sight in his studio is not the many paintings (only a couple are his own) that crowd the high walls, but a pair of square speakers, originally used in a movie theatre in the 1950s, which stand next to each other and are the size of a minibus. (He bought them from a rock musician whom he declines to name.) In another corner, there is an eclectically curated collection of vinyl albums and two turntables.

In 2007, “White Canoe” was sold at auction on a dramatic evening that suddenly diverted the art world’s attention to Doig. The artist’s work had been steadily increasing in value during the course of a career that stubbornly declined to follow prevailing trends.

“White Canoe” was estimated to fetch about £1m when it was offered at Sotheby’s in London. But the market was in an altogether friskier mood: the painting sold for £5.7m, breaking the auction record for a living European artist.

“I didn’t expect anything like that,” says Doig quietly. “It suddenly gave me a great deal of recognition. It was not something I was after. But then you question what it is that you were after. Once you get into that world, it is almost like there is no turning back. You’ve entered a game.”

The game took a long time to catch up with Doig. He was born in Edinburgh but moved with his family to Trinidad when he was two, where his father worked in shipping, and then again to Canada four years later.

He did not move to London until 1979, where he attended Wimbledon and St Martin’s art schools, already thinking that he was, and wanted to be, a painter.

London was not yet an important player in the contemporary art world, but Doig immersed himself in the city’s galleries: “I was seeing so much for the first time, Ed Burra, [Max] Beckmann and German expressionism, it was very exciting.”

His work, however, was not so much based on the new experiences to be found on the capital’s streets, as on his own memories, freshly refracted through the urban landscapes around him.

He made frequent trips to Canada in the 1980s: “I would take lots of photographs, building up a stock of images” — and then bring them to his studio in London to work on them. “I started to make these Canadian landscapes that were not real, but based on films, and these fantasies about the outdoors.”

Early recognition came shortly after his graduation from Chelsea College of Arts in 1991, when he won the Whitechapel Artist Prize, and was given a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

One of the paintings on show was “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine” (1991), in which a famous modernist home in Toronto is all but obliterated by a dense, wintry screen of trees and twigs, conveying a complicated, beautifully rendered relationship between man-made building and untameable nature.

He continued on the theme in a series of paintings of the modernist apartments designed by Le Corbusier in Briey-en-Forêt in France, in which Doig had spent time working with some architecture students.

“I hadn’t intended to make paintings of the building, but I took some photographs and they surprised me. I was nervous because [Le Corbusier] was such an icon. Did I really want to connect myself with him? In fact, the first commercial gallery show I had, they wanted to show those paintings. I wasn’t sure, but thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’ But I could sense they were nervous about the other ones.”

More problematic for some critics were the series of snow paintings Doig made, referencing his memories of Canadian winters. “It is funny looking back on it, but they were termed kitsch and overly sentimental at the time,” he recalls. “The dominant trend in cutting-edge painting was quite minimal and conceptual. And I was coming into that scene as a painter making snowy paintings.”

Did he find that intimidating?

“It was challenging. I certainly didn’t want to start making things I didn’t want to make. I was enjoying what I was making. Whether other people also took to it was another story.” Some at least, did: Doig won the John Moores prize for a “snowy” painting, “Blotter”, in 1993.

“I got a call from a guy at Frieze magazine after their first article about me,” says Doig. “He said if he had known I did paintings like that, they wouldn’t have run the piece. He said it looked like a Christmas card painted by mouth.”

How did he react to that? “It had to be a compliment, surely?” he responds with a soft chuckle.

Doig gradually built his reputation as a skilled craftsman, a painter’s painter, at the very time when those skills became abruptly unfashionable.

This was the rambunctious era of the so-called Young British Artists, and they began to dominate both the discourse of contemporary art, and the wider art market, which was also attracting new entrants. I ask Doig if he felt a sharp sense of being outside a “scene”.

“I think I did, yes. I still have that feeling.”

Surely not?

“Well, I still understand what that feels like,” he elaborates. “It is a long time from when you leave college, at 22, to your late thirties, early forties, working away, before you make anything considered to be of any great significance. Fortunately, London was very different then. You could live cheaply, in squatted studios, ducking and diving, as they say.”

Meanwhile, both dealers and artists themselves were changing their client lists and practices to accord with the vibrant new wave of conceptualism.
“Not mentioning any names, but I went to the studio of a friend, and his work had completely changed,” recalls Doig. “I made some comment, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve had a re-spray.’ I thought it was quite funny. And fair enough.”

I ask whether he ever felt tempted to do the same. “No, I didn’t. I wanted to continue what I was doing. To do something deliberately crafty, and personal. Something to do with my own life and memories, but on a scale that could be taken seriously, and, in a way, compete.”

Did it really feel like a competition? “Well, in those days, you had to drag around your paintings to all these competitions, hire a van, pay £50 to enter, go to some huge warehouse, and all these paintings are going by — ‘Next!’ — there is an element of competition in that. Your painting had to stand out.”

Doig’s life, and career, took a significant turn in 2000 when he was invited back to Trinidad on a residential programme with his friend and fellow artist Chris Ofili.

“It took me by surprise,” he says of his arrival there. “I never expected to be making work based on something that was right in front of my face.”
His work changed — there was, almost inevitably, more colour and greater lushness. But anyone expecting him to go the full Gauguin might have been disappointed.

The sense of detachment, of refraction, that he had developed in his practice stayed with him. “I was literally looking out of the window, seeing motifs that would appear in the paintings. But it didn’t have to be real. It didn’t have to connect with the real world. It was very much work done in the studio. And in the studio, anything can happen.”

Anxious, he says, to avoid lapsing into painterly clichés in his new surroundings, he took paintings he had already started with him to the Caribbean. And postcards.

“I discovered some old postcards in a junk shop in Old Street. They reminded me of Trinidad, in fact they were of south India. I made paintings of them. They looked like Trinidad, but they were from Old Street.”

Surely the sheer effect of the light must have affected his painting? “I had to block it out. I didn’t particularly like it. It was too intense. I covered the windows of the studio with this layer of canvas-coloured cotton. I read that Braque did that.”

He was equally inspired by the hours that followed sunset. “Things become more mysterious in the dark. Shadows become interesting to me.”

Far from the naive celebration of a naive natural world, Doig’s Trinidad paintings — he made a more permanent move to the island in 2002 — wrestle with postcolonial themes.

A series of his most Gauguin-like works show youngsters playing beach cricket, while the “Moruga” painting depicts a local re-enactment of Christopher Columbus’s arrival on the island (Doig sourced the story from a local newspaper).

A recurring motif in his paintings is the prison island of Carrera, which is adjacent to Trinidad, and with which he became better acquainted when he saw an exhibition of the prisoners’ artworks. He went on to visit the prison, and still regularly speaks to inmates there.

“They are lifers. But often they are just caught up in circumstances. You are with a group of friends, stealing a car, something happens and someone dies. And then . . . ” he clicks his fingers, “your life is just . . . ” He doesn’t finish the sentence.

Something of that menace is seen in one of Doig’s most striking recent paintings, 2017’s “Two Trees”. Three figures are caught in a moonlit scene that suggests wrongdoing, contrition, fear.

Doig explains to me the range of references that inspired each figure, collected through the combined results of research and happenstance. But they seem secondary to the overall effect of almost religious foreboding, told in a moment of high drama.

The painting was hung in a side room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in a 2018 exhibition, near Pieter Bruegel’s 1565 masterwork “Hunters in the Snow”, another work rich with cryptic allusion.

Doig’s engagement with Trinidad has become more profound in recent years. With the artist Che Lovelace he founded StudioFilmClub, which held free screenings of classic movies in an old rum factory and for which he designed the posters.

The first film to be shown was the 1972 Jamaican reggae-drenched crime drama The Harder They Come. “It had never been shown on TV because of its content, and I wondered how many people had actually seen it.” The aim of the club, he says, was to “create the kind of atmosphere that made you feel you were part of something bigger”.

Doig’s own world is also expanding. Later this month, he is the subject of a survey at Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art, his first major show in Asia. He says he has enjoyed allowing the curators to “have their own ideas about the installation” and is evidently happy with the results.

He will continue to commute between London, New York and Trinidad, where he has built a large studio, but immediate plans are in abeyance, following the death of his ex-wife at the end of last year.

The light has dimmed inside his studio, and we turn to his record collection, which is full of rarities, oddities and classics. He puts on some Kraftwerk, and the room fills with old-fashioned, thumping analogue sound.

At my request, he recommends some essential calypso albums. One of Doig’s latest series of paintings is of Robert Mitchum on the beach in Trinidad, and he tells me that the film star had made a “not bad” album of calypso songs based on his stay there in the 1950s.

“It was an amazing time for music, clubs, intrigue. The record made me wonder what he got up to all day long. You can’t find out anything about it.”

He smiles half-resignedly, but he knows that when facts dry up, the artistic imagination just gets started, and that is when Peter Doig comes into his own.