“The photos I use aren’talways that interesting or distinguished. That’s deliberate – I like the fact they’re bland: they leave a lot of space for invention. Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it … It’s about the idea of getting absorbed into them, so you get physically lost.” (Peter Doig in Exhibition Catalogue, Berlin, Contemporary Fine Arts; London, Victoria Miro Gallery, Peter Doig: Blotter, 1995, p. 10)
It is the monumental size and wall power of White Canoe which first draws you into its dream-like world. Its epic magical mystery contains a single white canoe glowing at its heart, floating serenely in the glassy moon-lit water, with a single figure bent over as if hiding. With a horizon line lying three quarters of the way up the painting, one is aware that the water is so still that most of the painting represents a reflection. Then as one spends time with it, the dense tapestry of techniques in which the image is submerged gradually begins to unravel and one becomes aware that this is no ordinary landscape painting. In fact it is a masterclass in post modern painting, in which that oldest of art forms, the Landscape, is re-vitalised and revivified for the contemporary age. Executed at a time when a new buzz was building surrounding the emergence of the cool, detached conceptual art of the Young British Artists, here was a Scottish-born artist who had spent the first twenty years of his life in Canada, re-visiting the landscapes of his youth. However rather than just painting those landscapes with his obvious technical ability, he distilled his distinctly romantic sensibility through an incredible understanding of the material nature of paint and the techniques employed by the greatest practitioners of the 20th century. The dedication and devotion to the age-old medium at a time when the art world had lost faith meant that with its re-emergence in the 21st century as the key art form, he is seen by many as the standard bearer for a generation.
Arguably the best of a series of 'canoe' paintings which he executed just after leaving Chelsea School of Art in the early 1990s, these works immediately appear quite traditional in their subject matter. However, closer inspection reveals a rich variety of influences which on the one hand reflect his submersion in the Art, Film and Photography of contemporary culture, and on the other, his upbringing in the rural tranquility of Canada. The origin of this image is not, as you would imagine, the artist en plein air in the landscape and finding a scene which takes his eye. Rather, it is a still from the 1980 film Friday the 13th and the scene is Camp Crystal Lake at the end of a terrifying 24 hours (fig. 2). Seemingly this is the moment just before ‘Jason’ rises to claim the last remaining survivor. However, frozen in time and lovingly re-created, this image has all of the opposite connotations, it contains a sense of serenity and calm and what could be more romantic than a reflection in water?
At its most fundamental, painting is about the nature of looking, and the power of the reflection has always mystified us as the secondary version of reality – in much the same way as painting itself. In the history of reflected surfaces in painting, one recalls the narrative mystery of Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage, Velazquez's Rokeby Venus or Las Meninas or the sheer painterly genius of Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère (fig. 4) and each of these paintings dramatically altered the course of painterly thought through their manipulation of the reflection as a visual tool. However none of these paintings dealt with the reflection on such a grand scale and with such painstaking attention to detail as White Canoe. Here the reflection occupies three quarters of the pictorial surface and is created through a figurative drama and mood which recalls the landscapes of Klimt (fig. 1) and Munch and a rich assortment of abstract processes which recall Pollock and Richter, amongst others. Furthermore, the dazzling moonlight which bathes the whole composition and the way that it is effected by the repetition of blue-white forms throughout recalls Monet’s painting of the water lilies at Giverny (fig. 3), as the reflected surface almost seems to rise above its origin. However, ultimately the image is distinctly Doig’s own. The rich kaleidoscope of colours and the dense application of paint with its intricately veiled layers, looping skeins and impasto blobs at once create a remarkable sense of grand depth in the landscape whilst also re-emphasising the real space, the flatness of the canvas and the nature of paint itself.
In the same way as the reflection is as convincing, if not more so, than the reality from which it is drawn, Doig here fuses the abstract with the figurative in a way never previously seen. He manipulates our senses so that one marvels not just at the romantic wonder of the landscape scene but also at the post-modern accumulation of techniques which construct the painted surface. Very little art in the 21st century has the power to hold one's gaze in the way that Peter Doig's paintings do and it is for this reason that he has become the most influential painter of his generation. White Canoe is quite simply his masterpiece.
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