In 1990, Peter Doig completed his painting Art School. In a snowy, probably Canadian, landscape stands a venerable oak tree, from which emerge the heads of three eager chipmunks. It is a painting à clef — a puzzle picture, representing something in the real world in an absurd or fictitious way. It is also a prophetic piece both about Doig and the overexcited London art world of the 1990s. “It was”, he says, “a comment on the ambition of contemporary artists at the time.”
Doig, then aged 30, was at Chelsea School of Art. He had, at 17, abandoned his job as a roughneck in the gas fields of the Canadian prairies and become a painter. The prairies left the mark of landscape on his imagination.
“You can’t imagine the prairie until you experience it. It’s so vast. It’s a hard landscape, especially in the winter, but it’s very beautiful. I got a good feel for that kind of working life, but I realised I kind of wanted to do something else.”
He arrived in London at what seemed to be the end of one of those phases — they happen every few years — in which the death of painting had been announced. In fact, in 1981 the New Spirit in Painting exhibition at the Royal Academy proclaimed that painting had never really gone away — although, of course, it went away again in the 1990s with the YBAs. This was all background noise to Doig.
“It never occurred to me to do otherwise than paint. Also, I don’t think I was aware there had been any decline, because you were just young and making things. There were very few galleries. The thought of showing in an important gallery was so far-fetched. It was such a different time. Studying painting then was probably like studying poetry now.”
Having been at Wimbledon and Saint Martins art schools from 1979 to 1983, he returned to Canada for three years. Then, feeling stalled, he came back to London to enroll at Chelsea, hoping to find a new way of being a painter: “I just thought I wanted to give myself another chance, really.” What, in fact, he found was a different London — a nursery, a hothouse, in which the movement that came to be known as the Young British Artists was being incubated. Painting was dying again and artists no longer expected to pursue the old bohemian ways of existence. The YBAs’ art was high-concept, high-profile and an attribute of the globalised high life. They were not about painting, they were about conceptualism, and the prophet of this movement was the artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin. In Art School, Doig’s chipmunks were the eager young students, looking to hit the big time, and the oak tree was a reference to Craig-Martin’s most influential piece, An Oak Tree (1973), which consists of a glass of water on a glass shelf and an accompanying text explaining that this is, in fact, an oak tree.
Amused, Doig ignored the noise and carried on painting. Then, in 2007, he too was swept up into the maw of big money when his 1991 painting White Canoe sold for $11.3m. It was, by a huge margin, the highest price paid for a Doig and, at the time, the highest for any living European painter. It was in the secondary market, so he didn’t see a penny, nor did he have the faintest idea why it happened.
“I don’t know, I really don’t know. There was no one connected to me making it happen. You hear these stories about groups of people buying paintings, lots of market-making, but I just don’t know.” Since then, he has been embraced as one of the greatest living painters and, as conceptualism fades from view, a hero of painting itself. On May 5 he will be embraced once again. He has been given his own show of new paintings in the Palazzetto Tito during the Venice Biennale. Today, we sit awkwardly opposite each other across a table in an almost empty studio, in the rapidly developing hinterland between the City and Islington. He is only working on one of the Venice paintings here in London — the rest are at home, in Trinidad.
A revealing aspect of his current stature is that he is routinely said to have restored beauty to art and, indeed, one’s first response to his pictures is that they are simply, obviously, beautiful fields of ravishing colour. Landscape is his most consistent genre. Sometimes these have an almost traditional feel, but, more often, he draws as much attention to the paint as to the subject. There are drips and blotches and screens of trees or falling snow. He paints water with Monet-like intensity. It is both another veil — asking you to wonder what lies beneath — and reflective, providing another painterly variation of the scene.
Canada seems to have been burnt into his mind. Canoes used to keep appearing, especially bearing a figure blankly staring back at us or slumped in some ambiguous posture. Woodland is everywhere. Several times he painted a block of flats in France by Le Corbusier seen through trees. Some critics said he was marking the death of modernism. He laughs this off, saying it was more about the deathly atmosphere of the place, as it was near many war cemeteries.
The Venice show will reveal a new motif — the great yellow block that is the prison at the centre of Port of Spain in Trinidad. He speaks of it as gaining power purely by its colour: “It’s ominous, it almost makes an abstract painting.” There also seem to be figure paintings. “Yes, there is some flesh on display.”
Yet many in the visual arts reach for the ideological revolvers when the subject of beauty comes up — too easy, lacking in rigour — and even he looks wary. “I think it’s difficult, almost like a criticism, in a way. I’d immediately take it as an attack. You know it’s also cautionary, it makes you think you’ve got to kind of, in a way... it’s got to be a balance, really, beautiful things, there has to be some kind of limit to that. Yeah, it’s a trap.”
That’s how he talks — hesitantly, often starting sentences several times before he decides what he is trying to say, laughing apologetically as he does so. His accent is indeterminate, presumably because of his peripatetic life: he has lived in Scotland, London and Canada, but mainly in Trinidad. Indeed, his middle name — Marryat — even suggests the life of a rover. He was given it because of a distant relationship to Captain Frederick Marryat, an early-19th-century writer of sea stories.
“How did you know that?” he says when I bring up the name, as if it were some kind of dark family secret. The family left Scotland for the island when he was two. His father was an accountant with itchy feet. The Caribbean was an overwhelming visual experience for the toddler Doig. “I remember the heat and just being outside all the time. Also, lots of heavy rain. But it was really about being outside all the time. The house was on stilts, and we often played underneath. There was a very close connection with nature and always dogs, lots of dogs.”
He is a very fit-looking 56-year-old. He wears a green pullover, a shirt and Levi’s, with some sensible-looking heavy-duty shoes. With Doig, clothes are important — very. There is little skin visible in his paintings. Figures tend to be seen from a distance and are defined, therefore, by their clothes. Why?
“It’s a good question. I kind of bypass skin or flesh. Some more recent paintings have been closer up, so there’s some... Er, yeah — finding a way to paint flesh without examining it and being Freud-like or Rubens-like or even Manet-like. I haven’t got those skills, really, so you have to find a way to navigate around it, make it interesting for myself as well as, hopefully, for the viewer.”
In talking about Trinidad, he also talks about poverty and the poor man who lived at the end of their street. But the way he describes the man is purely in terms of the sack he wore. He also remarks about his first arrival in London — “You couldn’t get a decent pair of Levi’s there.”
For more than 20 years, he was married to Bonnie. They had five children. Sadly that now seems to have broken up and, judging by his manner when he tells me this news, it is still a raw subject. At one point, I remind him of a question Grayson Perry asked him during a Q&A — “How has being a nice man helped your art career?” I don’t get the laugh I intended, and he simply says, “I don’t think he’d ask that now.”
Explaining his paintings is difficult. He can’t do it, nor should he try. There is a mystery there, and it is significant that he often uses veiling devices — typically snow or a mesh of branches — to distance and complicate the subject matter. I say it reminds me of the effect of Matisse: a sensuous hit, followed by an intense intellectual and imaginative puzzle. He regards Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle as among the greatest paintings ever made, but he is slightly embarrassed to find himself linked to the master. “My feeling about Matisse is like something Bob Dylan said about Frank Sinatra — ‘Frank is the mountain you have to climb.’ ”
The act of painting is a physical struggle. “Mistake after mistake after mistake” is how he describes his method, and he spends a lot of time peeling off paint. Again, he finds consolation in his master — one of the striking things, he points out, about Matisse’s The Piano Lesson is the number of attempts, still visible, that were discarded. “All that stuff that’s underneath! The audacity of just painting over stuff that probably looked OK.”
He assembles vast quantities of information — postcards, photographs, newspapers. By some alchemy, they all come together when he paints. But he only discovers what a painting is in the act of painting.
Doig is about to embark on the task of making pictures for a book of poetry by the Nobel prizewinner Derek Walcott. He even took Walcott to Montreal to see his exhibition there.
“I just pushed him round my exhibition in a wheelchair, and every so often he’d say, ‘Next’, and we’d move on.” He is more fluent about his encounters with Walcott than about anything else we have discussed. But that’s OK. His head is elsewhere, making mistake after mistake after mistake on the path to beauty and significant form. That’s all you need to know about Peter Doig. In a world full of chipmunks, he paints. Beautifully.
Peter Doig is at the Palazzetto Tito, Venice, from May 5