Labels stick like glue to some artists, whether denoting their style, or, as in the case of Henri Rousseau, their profession (Le Douanier).
Peter Doig is no exception. The term ‘continental drifter’ seems to follow him around, but he does not dispel the description. And it is, indeed, apt. This peripatetic visual chronicler is claimed by several countries, each leaving a distinct mark on his work and creative development. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, he is considered a Scot, but his links with Canada, and Trinidad, are just as tenacious. His art has been powerfully influenced by his formative years in this country, where he lived from 1966 to 1979 (his parents still live near Grafton, Ontario). Echoes of the Group of Seven, and the Canadian Impressionist James Wilson Morrice, are readily found in his paintings, as are those of David Milne, and to a lesser extent Emily Carr. He has been uprooted numerous times with his family, continuing to move on his own in later years, ultimately finding a haven (or is it refuge?) in Trinidad. His style is even harder to pinpoint, oscillating between modernism and post-modernism, shifting from urban pop art to landscapes that have become his forte, and fortune. In 2007, his painting White Canoe sold at Sotheby’s for $11.3 million, an auction record at the time for a living European artist. Slightly abstracted, visually compelling, with a touch of the narrative, but never enough to detract from their painterly exuberance, his canvases are an artistic documentation of a unique kind. Themes of magic realism weave throughout his oeuvre; images, visions based as much on memory as creative exploration. The Montreal public is in for a rare treat in 2014, when a major retrospective charting the last decade of Doig’s artistic production comes to the Museum of Fine Arts, having already been seen at Tate Modern, the Musée d’art moderne of Paris and the Frankfurt Schirn Kunsthalle in 2008, and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh in 2013. Titled No Foreign Lands (taken from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”), it will showcase his large canvases, as well as works on paper. His images of exotic landscapes of the Caribbean – although the artist balks at the term, the ‘exotic’ being in the eyes of the beholder, as it were -, predominate, seducing the viewer with their colour and brushstroke. In his choice of subject matter and visual experimentation, he stands on the shoulders of such great painters as Gauguin, Matisse, and Edward Hopper, continuing the well-established tradition of colour-infused, unbridled expressionism. Doig’s individual touch, however, is undeniable, as his works spring from a lived experience, both personal and pictorial. His use of colour in particular has a sensuous feel to it, departing from the contemporary conceptual rather than emotive approach. There is also a sense of the mysterious in his tableaux, a touch of the ominous, as nature overwhelms and dominates the landscape, encroaching on the human figures with atavistic, primordial stealth. Works done during 11 years in Trinidad explore the lush flora and tropical nature of the island, incorporating its diverse spiritual traditions and colonial past. But there are also images of breathtaking tranquillity, especially in his paintings of reflecting lakes, instantly recognizable as painterly notations of the Canadian landscape. And as always, beyond all the connotations, references, creative associations and stylistic assignations, lies the pure realm of art, of one man’s perception of his own nature and experience translated into a visual language understood and felt by anyone for whom art is a portal to their own soul. As undeniably contemporary as Doig’s œuvre may be, it is staunchly painterly in the true sense of the word, where brush to canvas creates a magical universe that expands our world into fathomless dimensions of time and space.
PETER DOIG NO FOREIGN LANDS
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
January 25—May 4, 2014