Peter Doig: A voyage into the unknown

Alastair Sooke meets British painter Peter Doig to discuss his mysterious and exotic work, what it’s like to be compared to Gaugin – and how it feels to make paintings worth £6m.

“I really don’t know what my paintings are about,” says the visionary British artist Peter Doig. “And I don’t want to. I don’t see the point. If I analyse them, I wouldn’t make them. There has to be an unknown element to be interesting.”

We are sitting in the Scottish National Gallery, where an important retrospective of Doig’s work opened as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival earlier this month. Looking at the large paintings that surround us, it is clear that Doig, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994 and has exhibited all over the world from Chicago to Paris, relishes voyaging into the unknown.

Take two of his most famous pictures, Pelican (Stag) (2003) and Pelican (2004), which are hanging to our right. In both canvases a bare-chested man wearing white swimwear or some sort of loincloth walks beneath quivering palm fronds by the edge of the sea. In the earlier picture, he is illuminated by a column of blue, offsetting the purples and indigos of the fathomless twilit forest beyond. The other painting is saturated with daylight, but this time the man, who appears further away and more indistinct, even ghostly, is carrying a limp-necked bird – presumably the pelican of the title.

Who is this furtive figure? Is he tramping through a tropical paradise or somewhere more sinister? Has he killed the bird? Certainly, there is something shadowy and unsettling about both pictures – as though the man has committed a primal crime and is about to be punished. He has the guilty air of Coleridge’s bright-eyed ancient mariner, who shot an albatross with a crossbow. Perhaps he represents mankind’s cruelty towards nature. Or maybe he’s just a beachcomber, who has chanced upon an evening meal. We can’t be sure – but the mystery lends the paintings intrigue.

In fact, they were inspired by the memory of an incident that Doig witnessed on a remote beach on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where he has lived since 2002: one day, the artist spotted a local man bobbing about in the sea with a pelican, which he lured onto land before wringing its neck. The Scottish National Gallery exhibition, which is called No Foreign Lands and will travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts next year, showcases paintings produced by Doig in Trinidad. Most of them have a similarly disturbing effect, and are steeped in the climate and folklore of the island that has become his home.

Homely but psychedelic

“I lived in Trinidad as a child,” explains Doig, who was born in Edinburgh in 1959, but, thanks to his father’s job at a shipping company, moved frequently in his early years – leaving Trinidad for Canada when he was seven, before training in London. “When I returned, I hadn’t been there in 33 years. I was invited to do a residency in an art centre. And I just felt so welcome that I decided to stay.”

During the ’90s, when his homely yet psychedelic paintings of buildings and boats drifting on lakes caught the attention of dealers and critics, Doig’s canvases were thickly encrusted with paint – he once said that he wanted to make their surfaces “slightly repellent”. Since moving to Trinidad, though, he has generally favoured a thinner, gauzier approach – as if the sticky air there causes the paint to drip and fade into its support. Does he think that the island has had an impact upon his paintings?

“It certainly has,” he says. “Even though I live in an urban setting, I’m very close to nature – and the nature of Trinidad is quite wild. It’s a densely forested and mountainous island, and within that there are lots of subjects.”

This is evident throughout the Edinburgh exhibition, from his earliest Trinidad pictures, such as Grand Riviere (2001-02), a swampy scene in which rampant foliage threatens to overwhelm a small boat and white horse in the foreground, to more recent work like Untitled (Jungle Painting) (2007), which features a well-endowed figure emerging from the gloom of a primeval forest. Other paintings, including the creepy apparition in Man Dressed as Bat (2007), also invoke the natural world. “That was based on a famous carnival character,” Doig says. “It’s much closer to the folklore of Trinidad.”

According to Doig, Untitled (Jungle Painting) was “meant to be a foreigner going native”. Invariably the artist, himself a foreigner who has gone native in Trinidad, is compared with Gauguin, the French former stockbroker who fled his homeland and settled in Tahiti, where he painted a series of masterpieces. With their dark outlines separating fields of vivid colour, many of Doig’s pictures owe an obvious stylistic debt to his Post-Impressionist predecessor.

“I have made a number of paintings that are Gauguin-esque, but only in jest really,” he explains. “If an artist goes to work in the tropics, there’s always a comparison made with Gauguin.” Does he find that annoying? “It’s a compliment, surely.”

‘Crazy money’

These days, Doig makes headlines for the prices achieved by his paintings at auction as much as for the pictures themselves. In 2007, his painting White Canoe sold at Sotheby’s for £5.7m – then a record for a living European artist. How does he feel about being able to create paintings worth millions of pounds?

“I try not to think about it,” he replies, “especially when I’m making something. Then I’m thinking about the challenge of how to make a painting. I don’t think there’s any value to a painting when it’s in the studio. Did Matisse or Lucian Freud think about the value of their work? I don’t think they did. But when a painting leaves the studio door, it enters another world and becomes part of a market.”

In the past, though, Doig has said that what people pay for his work can make him feel sick. “Well, of course, it seems to be crazy money,” he says. “But it’s out of my hands, and it’s an open market. It is an auction after all.”

When it comes to actually producing his paintings, which are often inspired by photographs, Doig craves privacy. “I need to be on my own,” he says, “and to disappear into my studio. Otherwise I would never get anything done.” Often he will work on a picture over many years. “I tend to start things and then leave them when I get stuck before returning to them,” he explains. “Sometimes that process takes five years or even longer. The minimum is probably a couple of years.”

How does he know when he has finished? “I don’t know,” he says softly. “It’s to do with balance. It’s to do with feeling less awkward about looking at it than you were the day before or the month before that. It’s very hard to describe.”

Is it instinctive? “Yes,” he says. “I don’t want a painting to be too finished, because I think that kills it. In the old days, my paintings were extremely crude in content and in quality. And now I want a bit of that back. I don’t think paintings are meant to be polished, beautiful things. The surface has to have life to it – that’s what makes painting special.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

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