In 2008, the Scottish-born painter, Peter Doig, had a mid-career retrospective at Tate Britain. Critical assessment of it was unanimously positive: "mesmerising", "terrific" and "beguiling" being just three of the words that reviewers used. Perhaps the most memorable observation, though, came from the show's curator, Judith Nesbitt. She declared how much she wished she could walk into her favourite Doig painting, Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, in a bid to solve its mystery.
Set at night-time, the image features two gatekeepers guarding entry to a winding path that leads to an unseen destination. The truth is that Nesbitt's comment could apply to any number of Doig's paintings: the viewer is very often dropped into the midst of a perplexing story, of which we’re given neither details nor background. It is this atmospheric quality that is also present in Daytime Astronomy (Grasshopper), to be offered in the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Sotheby's in London on 26 June; partial information, shrouded in layers of branches, grass and a dream-like haze.
The settings for these stories are influenced, in part, by the lands Doig has lived in. Moving from Scotland when he was two, he spent his formative years in Trinidad and Canada, before undertaking various studies in London (at Wimbledon School of Art, Saint Martin's School of Art and, finally, Chelsea School of Art). In 2002, he returned to Trinidad, where he still lives, the Caribbean island inspiring the lush, tropical landscape in many of his paintings – as surely as Canada has inspired the backdrop for numerous, snow-covered scenes.
During the early years of Doig's career, painting had somewhat waned in popularity, particularly in Britain. It was the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Young British Artist (YBA) movement were stealing the limelight with work (often installations) intended to cause outrage or shock. Painting was deemed passé, narrative painting especially.
A good example is offered by The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, which captures the view of an enchanted Canadian house we can just about glimpse through a veil of snow-dusted tree branches. Painted in 1991, it was sold the following year for £1,500. In March 2018 the same work fetched £14.38 million at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London.
How, though, to explain this stunning rise? Well, in some sense, it’s just the commercial art world catching up with the critical and curatorial one. Doig won the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize in 1993 and hasn’t really stopped winning awards since – in 2017, he was named the Whitechapel Gallery’s “Art Icon”, for example. There have also been exhibitions at major institutions worldwide, such as the survey at Tate Britain.
After The White Canoe's sale, Doig was described as "reaping the reward" for having been "a flag-bearer for painting" in the years when it wasn’t fashionable. If so, there’s a sense of the market recognising an artist who stayed true to his medium through thick and thin. (Not that Doig was ever a painter who repeated the same tricks. He shifted from heavily worked surfaces early in his career, for instance, to thinner, more fluid washes of pigment later on.)
There is also an awareness that Doig, now 59, has influenced a generation of painters after him, from Hurvin Anderson to Michael Armitage, and holds a teaching position a the prestigious Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. As Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel Gallery director, put it at last year’s Art Icon award ceremony, “every graduate show I go to, there’s a legacy of Peter Doig”.
Finally, and maybe most crucially, his works have what Delacroix called "the first merit of painting: to be a feast for the eye”. Engaging, surprising, dreamlike… Doig's images are ones that countless of us would wish to walk into – or, failing that, at least have hanging on our walls.
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