In laying bare his first pieces, the British painter reveals how he bubbled over with excitement in his student days – and teaches a valuable lesson in how artists can find their signature style.
It takes a special kind of courage for a famous artist to drag 40-year-old apprentice pieces out of the attic and make an exhibition of them. Yet that is exactly what the celebrated painter Peter Doig has done for his new show Early Works.
How early? Many of these paintings and drawings, Doig reveals as we contemplate a sketch of a car with Michelangelo's David as a hood ornament, were done when he was a student at St Martin's art college in London in the early 1980s. "It was a great time to be studying painting", he remembers, with the 1981 exhibition A New Spirit in Painting unleashing free, figurative, "neo-expressionist" art and a feeling that anything was possible.
This show bubbles over with the artistic excitement of a young man finding himself as a painter. When St Martins announced there would be a trip to Italy, he explains, he immediately started looking at Italian art and responding to it even before they went. Hence all the Italian references here. In a couple of drawings, both called Pontormo Disco, he copies an impossibly slender and stretchy male nude from a painting by this 16th-century artist in the National Gallery and gives it a pop-culture vibe. The National Gallery should put on a show called Pontormo Disco, based around Doig's deliciously hip Renaissance homages.
But Doig laughs that in the end, the Italy trip he anticipated in his art never happened – they went to Madrid instead.
It's not just art history that beguiled the young Peter Doig. The multifarious, energetic art here is in love with travel, cities, spaces. He paints a neo-expressionist nightclub in the idiom of German art, and fantastic views of New York whose cartoony lines and skyscraper jumble would have made great albums covers for Talking Heads.
It puts the critic on test. Would I have recognised this student painter's future if I'd seen this stuff then? I hope so, because it is mostly very impressive. The worst you can say about young Doig is that he does not take himself seriously enough – hardly a fault in a young artist.
By 1986-88, when he paints his landscape ‘At the Edge of Town’, Doig has found out who he is. This painting's purple Edvard Munch sky and blobby trees are typical of his work to this day. So why revisit the past when his grownup art is so good?
Surely, to debunk myths of artistic pomp. This is a generous show that all would-be artists ought to visit. The genius who arrives fully formed is still a dangerous idea. In reality artists learn. Doig is a teacher – he still teaches professionally, in Düsseldorf. He clearly does not need the money. Obviously he loves to teach – to share what he knows.
This exhibition is best enjoyed as an act of teaching, as one of this century's most respected artists reveals how he became himself. Like the American writer Thomas Pynchon's book Slow Learner, it is a disarming confession of the slips as well as successes of an artist setting out. Art is work, reveals Doig– and work is fun.