‘A veil of memory’: Peter Doig’s Cobourg 3 + 1 More

The artist’s former teacher, art critic Adrian Searle, discusses a work ‘so rich I could look at it for days’ — a highlight from our 7 March Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

‘It’s this place of the imagination as much as a real place,’ says art critic Adrian Searle, discussing the landscape of mist and snow in Peter Doig’s Cobourg 3 + 1 More, a highlight of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction  on 7 March (view all lots below).

The artist was one of Searle’s first pupils when he taught at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and Searle recalls ‘a cowboy character, full of life’.  Although he studied in London, the Edinburgh-born artist spent his early childhood in Trinidad and, later, in cities across Canada, whose vast, snow-whitened landscapes came to shape his later canvases.

Cobourg, the Ontario town from which his 1994 painting takes its name, is one of the places where Doig’s family settled. Searle comments: ‘I think a lot of the paintings he was making at this time do capture specific memories of youth, but they go beyond the anecdotal. If you like, the painting could be about the act of remembering and how fugitive that is.

Peter Doig, Cobourg 3 + 1 More, 1994. Oil on canvas. 78½ x 98⅜ in (200 x 250 cm). Estimate £8,000,000-12,000,000. This work is offered in the Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 7 March at Christie’s London
Peter Doig, Cobourg 3 + 1 More, 1994. Oil on canvas. 78½ x 98⅜ in (200 x 250 cm). Estimate £8,000,000-12,000,000. This work is offered in the Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 7 March at Christie’s London

‘Doig discovered what an apt medium painting is to try to capture something like memory or mood,’ Searle continues. ‘Paint is fluid: it resists you a bit, but it flows and curdles in places. It’s infinitely malleable, like memory.’ In Cobourg 3 + 1 More, Doig’s figures seem to ‘swim’ out at the viewer through a translucent field of white snow that appears, impossibly, to fall out in front of the painting. 

‘Our interior worlds are coming in and out of focus all the time and that’s exactly what's happening in this painting,’ says Searle, describing the work’s shift between ‘clarity and indistinction’. While making his snow paintings, Doig commented: ‘I was looking at a lot of Monet, where there is this incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour’. Here again, an ‘interior world’ emerges: Doig has talked about ‘painting the space behind the eyes’, capturing the darts of colour that can, with concentration, appear to play across the insides of closed eyelids.

In Cobourg 3 + 1 More, Doig captures the transitory, half-way state between waking and sleeping — between day and night, winter and spring — that lies at the heart of his practice. It is a suggestion of a memory just out of reach, an evocation of the irretrievability of youth; a work, says Searle, that has an ‘orchestral quality’.