Peter Doig was just two when he left Scotland, so his early memories of his native land are, at best, limited. He spent his childhood in Trinidad, grew up in Canada, trained in London, has travelled the world since then as an artist, and now, once again, lives in Trinidad.
So when, next week, his stunning retrospective exhibition opens at the Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh, its title, No Foreign Lands, is almost inevitable. It is a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”
Where, then, do his own allegiances lie? “I’m certainly not a Trinidadian, and I’m certainly not Canadian,” says Doig. “I'm not an English artist. So what am I? I guess I’m a Scottish artist.”
In truth, however, he is more of an outsider than anything. “People will ask me where I’m from, and I say, ‘Well, I’m from here,’ and they may be surprised. I guess I do feel a bit of an outsider.”
That is not to say his Scottish connections are negligible. He has relations all over the country. “It means something to me,” he says. “I’m very much indebted to my Scottish family for nurturing me and encouraging me. The generation of my grandparents and my great aunts, and cousins, they were formative nurturers. My grandmother always used to say that Scotland was my ‘calf’ country. Although I know I am not Scots in the way I would be if I’d grown up here, but I’m part of that Scots diaspora. I just happened to be in different places at different times.”
The different place he chose to go back to most recently was Trinidad, where he moved to take up an artist’s residency, and where and his wife Bonnie have brought up their two children.
The result of that move can be seen in the huge and vibrant paintings that promise to make his show one of the sensations of the British art season. There are dream-like landscapes, strange images picked up from his own alert observations, from photographs or newspaper clippings, translated into paintings that seem sometimes to have dripped or drifted onto the canvas.
He was working on some of them as recently as last Sunday, and as we walked round the gallery, you could still smell the paint. Leaving a painting alone seems almost the hardest task he faces. “Every single exhibition I’ve ever made, even when I was a student, I was working up until the last moment, basically painting the picture out of the door. There’s always something to do. But once it’s gone it’s gone.”
He gazed lingeringly at another picture, wondering if it was too late to make a last-minute alteration.
He spends long hours, days, even weeks or more on his paintings. “It’s not just about the hours of work, it’s about the hours of trying to make them work. You start something and you say, ‘This is looking interesting.’ And then you don't know what the next step is, and you wait and you wait, and then you might do a bit more to it, and then you’ve started about two or three others.” One of the most arresting, Black Curtain, happened almost by chance. “I was stuck with that painting, and I saw this white paint on the ground, and I stuck my brush in it, and the paint was slightly congealed, maybe a bit too much oil in it, and I made a stripe with this big white brush and I just watched the way it didn't quite cover it, it just opened itself up because of the oil in it, and I did a few more, I could have wiped them off, but actually it was just this moment when I had the right paint ... it wasn't a design decision, but that became the painting.”
He adds: “It wasn’t as if I said, ‘I’m going to paint this painting and at the end I’m going to put a screen on it.’ It wasn’t like that at all. It was almost as if a kind of act of desperation became the final act.”
What emerges from the exhibition is not just the restless imagination of a painter at the very top of his creative best, but the beauty of the images. Yet he does not consider himself a great draughtsman: “I wasn't very good,” he says. “My drawing ability is still pretty lame, it’s not my forte. I find any means necessary to make the drawing in my paintings work, I’ll use stenciling, tracing, I’ll do whatever I can ... at the beginning my painting was very rudimentary, because not only was my drawing bad, but my painting was bad. I think my painting actually got better than my drawing quite quickly.”
He points to a series of portraits. One stands out as strong and sensitive: “I think I got lucky there,” he smiles.
There will not be a single shark in formaldehyde, or an unmade bed on view in Peter Doig’s show. But if the prices that his work fetches are anything to go by, it is beauty rather than sensation that is winning over the art world. Six years ago, Doig’s painting White Canoe sold at Sotheby’s for £7 million, then an auction record for a living European artist. In February this year, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine fetched £8.5 million.
Meanwhile, Danrien Hirst prices fell by 30 per cent last year; an exhibition by the joke-artist Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim in New York was pronounced a dud; Tracey Emin announced a campaign for “real drawing” and The Times art critic Rachel Campbell Johnston argued last year that “contemporary art is at the end of its cycle”.
Doig thinks that people want more from art than just a momentary thrill. “Why do so many artists who gain their reputations not as painters, all of a sudden want to make paintings?” he asked. “A lot of artists who are well known for making non-painting work, once they become successful, also want to become painters. It's because there is a longevity in painting. Why? I don't know. Painting is difficult, it should be difficult. It’s difficult to find your place within the world of painting – and so it should be.”
He questioned whether any interesting work was being done now. “I think that, when you’re talking about whether contemporary art has lost its way, you have to look at the way [it] has become big business now. It’s reflected in the amount of galleries there are, the amount of artists that have careers.”
But that did not mean that the work had value. “Within contemporary art there are no current trends, really, although I hope there are young people who are making paintings that attack this idea,” he said. “I’m sure there are. But how do you do that? And is that interesting? Or is it just a repeat of what was happening in the early 90s, when people were making painting about painting.” Doig believes people who pay high prices at auction are part of a “secondary market” in which money is more important than art.
“The people who buy my work at auction never come to the galleries,” he said. “They’re like people who never want to find a quaint little restaurant, which is reasonable but quite good, they want to go to the top-named restaurant and pay the top price. Why my paintings have got there I don’t know. I can't say what the appeal is, maybe it’s not the value that is the appeal. What is the value of a painting?”
Peter Doig; No Foreign lands is at the National Galleries of Scotland from August 3 to November 3.