Peter Doig is one of the small group of contemporary artists – David Hockney is another – who continue to believe in paint as the greatest medium of art. Indeed, he speaks of oil paint almost as a lover, treasuring the way it drips on the canvas, thins with the brush stroke and changes as it hardens. “It’s a form of magic and alchemy,” he declares in an interview with Angus Cook published in the catalogue of his at the Scottish National Gallery of Art, waxing lyrical about the “way it congeals and how it takes on a different character when it goes bad, and the way that certain colours produce different kinds of dryness, and all those little things that may not seem important at all, but I think are ultimately incredibly important really”.
It’s a love affair, a form of eroticism at times, which makes his figurative and pure landscapes fluid in their feel, edging towards abstraction, often opaque and frequently at the point of dissolution. The figures are solid enough, based on photographs he has taken or collected, but they are seen slightly out of focus as if they existed in memory or in dreams. Doig is an artist who tries to do what poets do with language, to capture images as retrieved in memory, not as they are but as we recall them.
It’s a concern which springs from a peripatetic life. The exhibition in Edinburgh, opening in time for the Edinburgh festival, proclaims itself as the first show of Doig’s work to be held in the country of his birth. But, while he was born in Edinburgh, Doig is far from being a Scottish artist, living an early childhood in Trinidad, a youth in Canada and then nearly a decade in London, where he went to art college. He now boasts studios in Trinidad New York and London as well as a professorial post in Düsseldorf.
Wisely, the Scottish National Gallery has chosen not to go for a full retrospective, given that the Tate in London held one only five years ago. Instead, it has chosen to concentrate on the works of the last dozen years in the new century. It makes for a thrilling show. These are the years in which, having been invited back for a short sojourn in 2000, Doig decided to return to Trinidad in 2002 with his family to live there.
It was also the time when his own work was beginning to develop out of the realistic landscapes of Canada with their whites, browns and dark greens, influenced by Edvard Munch, Monet and Tom Thomson and the Canadian Group of Seven, into something more abstract and elusive.
Just as Matisse, a growing influence on Doig, found in Morocco a new palette and a new way of composing space, so in Trinidad Doig has encountered a whole new range of colours and of culture. In comes Gaugin’s yellows and reds and sculptural figures, so does Matisse’s light greens along with the dense foliage of the jungle and the horizon lines of sea and sand of a Caribbean island.
It makes for a glorious display of colour and texture. The upper gallery of the Scottish Royal Academy in which the exhibition is being held are well suited to the giant canvases on which Doig paints. Around the central gallery are hung a series of major paintings, some in pairs, displaying Doig’s continuous concerns: two versions of the Red Boat, the one in which the boat glides through the waters made green by the tress around, the other in which the red of the boat drips down in to the water; Man Dressed as Bat of 2007, based on the figure of a carnival-goer; and Mal d’Estomac, called after a bay on the island, move as far into pure form and colour as you could go without becoming completely abstract. While Driftwood from 2001-02 is an extraordinary evocation of listlessness through strokes of yellow and green brushed onto the white canvas.
There is meaning, or at least the hint of a back story, to some of these canvases. The canoe is a recurring theme from his Canadian days, used both to divide the horizontal space of his compositions but also to suggest time as it drifts through memory. Pelican from 2004 is based on the sight he encountered of a local man drowning a pelican to eat. Taking a picture seemed wrong so he used the image of a south Indian fisherman dragging his net along the beach which he’d bought in a London market, transferring it to the Trinidadian hauling the pelican along, using the same image on a deep blue vision of a man in Pelican (Stag) in which the lighter blue which acts as a shaft of light on the figure drips down the canvas as it dissipates.
Sport comes into play, as it did with skiing and skating in the Canadian pictures. There’s a striking Gauginesque picture of cricketing, Paragon from 2006, in which the energy of the bowler is played against the tension of the waiting batsman and the ease of the fielder across red sands and swirling water, and a classic Doig painting Ping Pong of 2006-08, in which the thrusting player is moved to the side and the centre taken up by a geometric stack of blue and black squares based on a pile of bright beer crates which the artist had photographed.
Most ambiguous is a Van Gogh-style night study titled Music of the Future (2002-07), in which a lakeside village is pictured horizontally in a haze of dark blues and greens. It owes something to Whistler’s Nocturnes, hence the musical analogy perhaps, but also to Doig’s sense of an outsider looking across at a culture which is vibrant but also not part of him. While he glories in the vegetation, he is careful not to romanticise it.
Not the least virtue of doing a show of a decade’s work in this fashion is that it enables the curators to accompany the major works with many of the oil-on-paper studies which the artist uses to prepare, and develop his themes. In most cases, he takes his photographic image and plays with it from various angles before deciding how he is going to use it. For Lapeyrouse Wall of 2004, a near-surrealist picture of stillness of a man with a pink umbrella walking beside a graveyard wall, he sketches in pencil and paints the figure in different dress, with varying shadows and quite different textures of stone wall. With Music of the Future, he picks out a tiny figure he has inserted of a bearded, cloaked figure and then makes a complete picture of that.
Where does he go next? From the latest pictures in this show, still fresh from painting, his interest is both more abstract and more symbolic. Night Painting (North Coast) of 2012 might as well be an abstract in its subtle modulation of blue and green were it not for the Matisse-like fronds which anchor the canvas to the right. A self-portrait, Cave Boat Bird Painting (2010-12), sees himself drifting out of a cave, hat firmly down his face in meditation, while a dark bird – a constant theme of recent work – flies above. It’s a dreamy vision and a strong one but, looking at these late paintings, you don’t sense any firm direction. After Trinidad you feel the art of this most poetic of painters seeks a fresh beginning. Maybe Scotland could be the place.
Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org) to 3 Nov