Peter Doig’s work creates emblematic aesthetics, depicting exotic, haunting and classical landscapes permeated by a sense of irony and unease that makes it utterly contemporary. Born in 1959, and originally from Scotland, Doig has lived and worked between Canada, Trinidad, Britain, New York and Dusseldorf over the years of building his pioneering figurative practice and career. His atmospheric paintings demonstrate an incredible sensitivity towards materiality. They mix references to photography (often his own photos), cinema, newspaper clippings and painting styles of historical artists such as Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse with the artist’s own subjective impressions.
‘My thinking is always between places. ‘Something I would like to achieve in my paintings is a place in between places.’
After his early years in Trinidad and Canada, which have both continued to serve as key inspirations for his artistic imagery, he moved to London for art school, studying at Wimbledon and Saint Martin’s School of Art, finally completing his MA at Chelsea College in 1990. The paintings from his Degree Show were ‘paintings of quite modest subjects’ such as snowy landscapes and everyday objects. These are the first examples of his later iconic language and homely subject matter and earned him prestigious institutional recognition with the Whitechapel Artists Award in 1991 and the resulting solo exhibition at the gallery. This show featured some of Doig’s most famous works up to this day, such as Iron Hill (1991), Swamped (1990), and The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), which depicts Eberhard Zeidler’s modernist home in Rosedale, Toronto – this painting is most illustrative of Doig’s signature style; with the surface layered with a lattice foliage, he manages to make the flat painting three dimensional and to draw the viewer into its dreamlike universe akin to how an abstract painting might. This unique rediscovery of an interest in texture, space and colour made Doig truly revolutionary at a time when the London art scene was dominated by conceptualist and minimalist work and the YBA’s with Hirst’s 1988 Freeze exhibition. Despite the powerful Zeitgeist of the era, Doig stubbornly stuck to figurative painting and his folkish subjects of ghostly landscapes and houses, his rich palette and style reminiscent of Post-Impressionism and Romanticism with a contemporary edge.
‘I really enjoyed being a painter then, actually. I think you can see I enjoyed it, too, in the work that I was making. I don’t think I was chasing anything, I definitely wasn’t a bandwagon chaser. I think that’s a big mistake for artists — to try to chase something and want to be part of something’, said Doig in 2013.
In the years to follow he continued to pursue his subject matter and develop his style; towards the later 90s he produced a series about a Toronto-based tunnel, famous for the city’s residents since someone painted a rainbow over it in 1972 anonymously, which since has always been repainted about 40 times despite efforts of local authorities to cover it up. This series also included works such as Country-Rock (Wing Mirror) from 1999. Another famous piece, Canoe-Lake was painted in 1997, and drew inspiration from the classic horror film Friday the 13th.
Universal recognition for his practice was further consolidated by a series of prestigious awards such as the first prize at the John Moores exhibition in 1993 and a nomination to the Turner Prize in 1994 (won by Antony Gormley). He was also named a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1995 to 2000, when he returned to Trinidad for an artist’s residency with famous painter Chris Ofili. He once said that in Trinidad, ‘there are incredible contrasts of light, and extreme shadows as well’, which had a massive impact on his painting style in terms of returning imagery in some of his most seductive and exotic works that carry the mystery and lush life of the Caribbean Islands themselves.
In 2002, he fully settled on the Caribbean island, setting up a studio, where he has been living and working since. Simultaneously, he also became a professor of Fine Arts at the Fine Arts Academy in Düsseldorf, Germany, which has been hugely impactful in his artistic development. In his own words:
‘Conversations that you have in the studio with the students are the types of conversations you don’t ever have elsewhere, really,’ said Doig in 2013. ‘I get a lot out of it myself, especially since I have been teaching in Düsseldorf. My paintings have changed quite a lot, and I have actually learnt a lot from observing the way people make things, and from talking about it.’
Doig, who’s now represented by high-end galleries such as Michael Werner, has since had solo exhibitions in many substantial institutions internationally, including Tate Britain (2008), Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Dallas Museum of Art (2005) and Fondation Beyeler in Basel (2014). His first exhibition in his home country, Edinburgh took place in the Scottish National Gallery, exhibiting his works mostly created during his Trinidad residency, and elicited wide critical acclaim. His paintings are in many major museum collections including Musée National d'Art Moderne, in Paris, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art, in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern with his painting Ski Jacket (1994) and The House that Jacques Built (1992) in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
His market prices have steadily grown since 2007 when his famous White Canoe was sold at a then record price for a living European artist. Now figures for his paintings are at a high, his best-selling work to date being the painting Swamped (1991) depicting a snowy Toronto landscape.
As one of the most successful and sought-after painters alive, but at core still a truly painter’s painter, Peter Doig is, as accurately put by art critic Jonathan Jones: " a jewel of genuine imagination, sincere work and humble creativity (…) amid all the nonsense, impostors, rhetorical bullshit and sheer trash that pass for art in the 21st century.”