Swamped (1990) is an exquisitely rendered masterpiece by Peter Doig, dating from a seminal moment in the artist’s career. Painted in 1990, it captures the mesmerizing atmosphere of a moonlit lagoon, with a mysterious white canoe situated at its heart. Doig’s pictures of canoes have become icons of contemporary painting. One of the earliest works to explore this subject, Swamped has stood as an important touchstone for the artist in scores of major exhibitions, including the 1998 touring retrospective at Kunsthalle Kiel, Kunsthalle Nürnberg and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Kunstaus Glarus, Switzerland, 1999; Le Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Tate Britain, London and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt 2008-2009; and most recently Fondation Beyeler, Basel 2015. In this painting, Doig’s solitary boat floats silently in the swamp, carrying a motionless figure. As our eye drifts across the composition, we are greeted by an uncanny yet romantic scene, which is suspended in a perpetual state of uncertainty. Isolating a single frame from the 1980 cult horror classic, Friday 13th, Doig builds a shuddering tension in his painting. This atmosphere is only amplified by the artist’s rich assimilation of pictorial techniques and influences from across the history of art. In Swamped, Doig’s intricate and seamlessly woven tapestry of process-based and abstract techniques creates a special friction between figurative atmosphere, and dense abstract and painterly meaning. It is this unique ability that marks Doig as one of the greatest painters of his generation.
In Swamped, the smooth curve of the white canoe’s hull meets the open water, casting a perfect reflection, like an image in a looking glass. A mysterious inverted universe stretches out beneath the boat, the moon casting its spell over the water’s glassy surface, throwing pools of white light and brilliant flecks like fireflies across the lake. Trunks of imaginary trees cast long shadows and rafts of blanket-weed and half-submerged wooden stumps, draw patterns in the water. Doig has often played with the power of reflection as a conceptual and compositional tool in his painting. In two other important paintings from this early period, Pond Life (1993) and Reflection (What does your soul look like) (1996), Doig has experimented with the glassy surface of frozen water, painstakingly painting the elegant, inverted lines of a lonely house or solitary figure. As the artist has explained, ‘the mirroring opened up another world. It went from being something like a recognizable reality to something more magical’ (P. Doig quoted, in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., London, Tate Britain, 2008, p. 14).
In Swamped, we are invited to marvel at the play of colour and texture, fiery red paint spilling over the swamp, edging out forest greens and intermingling with golden yellows in the centre of the lagoon. Some distance away, a bank of white creates the impression of a shore, with tall trees climbing up towards the sky, cloaked in velvety green. Through the dense vertical lines of the thick forest, a round, glowing orb appears. It is the painted moon, casting its light upon a small log cabin quietly tucked away in the thicket. Here, in this painterly fantasy, all sense of depth and surface, distance and proximity, materiality and illusion have been lost, the landscape transforming before us as if in a dream.
This effect is heightened through Doig’s brilliant assimilation of pictorial techniques and influences from across the history of art, borrowing from Gustav Klimt, Paul Cézanne, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper, to Post-War painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Generously splashed, daubed, and poured, Doig’s painterly composition falls in and out of focus, from figurative to abstract. Languid drips, tiny pointillist specks and large globs of transparent resin and bright paint, as well as smooth passages of colour added and subtracted with the face and edge of a palette knife, all create this magical scene.
As Adrian Searle has described, in Swamped, ‘the title, refers as much to the paint itself – and to the variety of its handling and the quantity of touches with which Doig has built up the image – as it does to the swampy lagoon. The painting presents us with a different dream-like reality, contiguous to that of dry land, or of the waking world, but one that is constantly shifting, mobile and shapeless. Swamped also swamps us, inducing in the viewer something like a sense of drowning in the indeterminacy of its details and layerings’ (A. Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’, in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, pp. 73 and 79).
Swamped was originally born out of a dream sequence in the 1980 Sean S. Cunningham film, Friday 13th. Staying at his father’s house in Grafton Ontario in 1987, Doig came across the famous scene where Jason shoots out of the water to grab his only survivor from behind, dragging her into the icy water – she wakes up in hospital to find it was only a dream. As Doig explains, ‘I saw this scene and went out to the barn and made a painting of it that night. The funny thing about Friday 13th (1987), is that it was the only painting I ever made that had a direct reference to a movie, but somehow it became part of the ‘official’ story. People love a hook like that, so they like to think you make paintings from horror movies. In fact it was the least horrifying moment of the film. It’s more like a romantic dream when you remove it from its context’ (P. Doig, quoted in, A. Searle ‘A Kind of Blankness’, in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 70).
Doig has continued to return to this film still and its image of the solitary canoe over time. As the artist explains, he is often ‘struck by its relationship to Munch and also by the plain beauty of this still amidst all the carnage’ (P. Doig interview with K. Scott, in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 10). Using the single image of the lone canoe, Doig takes his filmic source on a journey through the furthest reaches of his imagination. The subsequent paintings are now widely recognized to be some of his most accomplished, including: Swamped (1990), Canoe Lake (1997-1998), Ghost Canoe (1991), White Canoe (1991), 100 Years Ago (2000) and 100 years ago Carrera (2001) (Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris). As Terry Myers has described, there is an important connection between: ‘horror movies and Peter Doig’s paintings: [they are] films and canvases which suffuse manifestations of the landscape not with nostalgia, but with the terror of anticipation (or visa versa); celluloid and paint which capture and expose form and content in a graphic, visceral (desiccated to soaked) materiality; different genres which exist for the next telling and/or looking (with or without a sequel); distinct methodologies which perpetually canibalise their respective histories as the way in which things will be done’ (T. R. Myers, ‘Jumping the gun, better than dead: what’s next in Peter Doig’s paintings’, in Peter Doig: Blizzard Seventy-Seven, exh. cat., Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, 1998, p. 65).
Painted in 1990, Swamped marks a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, falling shortly before Doig’s graduation from the Chelsea College of Art and Design and his being awarded the prestigious Whitechapel Artist Prize, which culminated in a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1991. The prospect of such a major institutional show at such a formative stage in his career spurred an intense period of creativity in which Doig produced a small number of large format canvases, which he now sees as the thematic matrix for his subsequent oeuvre. Included in the Whitechapel exhibition were major works including Iron Hill (1991) and The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991). This pantheon of great paintings that Doig realised during the early 1990s, are now widely considered the best of his career. Many of the works from this period are now housed within international museum collections including: The House that Jacques Built (1992), Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Boiler House (1994), promised to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Ski Jacket (1994), Tate Modern, London.
In Swamped, Doig eschews linear perspective and repoussoir, instead giving the viewer freedom to roam across the surface. The focal point of the painting appears in constant flux, ever shifting ‘like the vagaries of memory’ (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’ in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 26). Doig is a deeply erudite artist, well-versed in the practices of his modern predecessors including Gustav Klimt, Paul Cézanne, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper amongst others. Certainly, elements of these eclectic forbears can be traced in Swamped, not only in the rich panoply of colour used, the golden and red tones that glimmer from the surface like Klimt’s shimmering The Kiss (1908), but in formal, spatial and ideological terms. As Doig has elaborated, he holds a particular admiration for Bonnard whom he suggests, ‘[captures] the space that is behind the eyes. It’s as if you were lying in bed trying hard to remember what something looked like. And Bonnard managed to paint that strange state. It is not a photographic space at all. It is a memory space, but one which is based on reality’ (P. Doig, interview with H.U. Obrist in A. Searle et al. (ed.), Peter Doig, London, 2007, p. 142).
This notion of transience, the space between reality and the imaginary, is something that Doig consistently evokes in his work. In Swamped, the Friday 13th film still, has undergone numerous shifts in the process of translation to canvas turning it into a mystical, dream-like landscape. In certain respects, this act of interpretation recalls the approach of Gerhard Richter whose own understanding of representation and reality balances on the knife’s edge between figuration and abstraction. In Roberta Smith’s review of Doig’s first solo exhibition in New York, she concluded that his paintings ‘fuse the strands of Mr Richter’s split career - his photo-realist works and the frozen gestures of his abstraction - into single works’ (R. Smith, ‘Art in Review’, in The New York Times, 30 September 1994, http://www. nytimes.com [14/01/13]).
A great admirer of Edward Hopper, Doig has also managed to bring a special level of intensity to his painting, reminding us of his forebear’s poignant pictures of modern American life. As Doig once described in words that could equally capture his own practice, ‘[Hopper] not only suggests a particular scene but seems to summarize an entire film, in a very specific manner, and yet it divulges so little’ (P. Doig, quoted in P. van den Bosch, ‘Charley’s Space’, in Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, exh. cat., Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, 2003-2004, p. 15).
Living in London in the early 80s, Doig was a student during the landmark exhibition, A New Spirit in Painting, at the Royal Academy, showcasing the London school painters: Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, the North European expressionist tradition and the independent spirits of Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. The panoply of rich surface effects found in the art of the time must have made a profound impression on the young artist. This ambitious, experimental attitude to paint is revived in Swamped to startling and triumphant effect. Having grown up in Canada, Doig was also deeply aware of the Group of Seven artists, whose figurehead Tom Thomson was a painter of the northern Canadian wilderness. Thomson certainly shaped Doig’s vision through his hallucinatory use of colour, his way of treating the forest as a dense and compact painting grid, and his sense of the sublime. It was Thomson who was to tragically drown in Canada’s Canoe Lake in 1917; this was an event that perhaps subliminally prompted Doig’s fascination with the Friday 13th narrative. At once pioneering and at the same time wholesome, the legacy of the Group of Seven artists is widely felt in Canada. Ironically it was only upon returning to the studio in London in 1989, that Doig felt able to freely explore their influemce.
It was during this time, while a student at the Chelsea School of Art, London that he really began to experiment with the properties of paint and its ability to resonate with the tones and textures of the natural landscape. As Adrian Searle has suggested, ‘what [he] discovered in this very short period of time was that paint is like mud and can be drawn out into trails and strokes like dangling vines, tendrils or branches. It can make a clean white shape, like a canoe or a broken inchoate mess of spatters’ (A. Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’, A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52). In Swamped, Doig devotes himself to the material atmosphere of the swamp with all its shapes, colours and surfaces. This approach to working with paint distinguished him from the rest of his peers, who were for the most part producing cool, conceptual works at the time. As Doig himself recalls, ‘in the late 1980s and early 1990s most art had a clean, contemporary, slick look... I purposefully made works that were handmade and homely looking... I didn’t want the surfaces to be beautiful but slightly repellent on close inspection’ (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’ in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 22).
What sets Peter Doig apart from any other painter in history is his ability to embody landscape in the brushstroke. Each painting from this period of the early 1990s offers a masterful rendering and layering of paint, which can be read both as abstraction and as a celebration of the physical properties of nature. In Swamped, Doig has embraced contingency, rendering his composition with thick, tactile, impasto paint. As he once explained, ‘I often find that I am unable to really paint unless I have a lot of paint out in open containers on my studio table and floor. This is part of the decision process for me - as well as chance (ibid, p. 26).
In Swamped, the surface is riddled with small, button-like blobs of oil paint in bright primary colours and clear resin, protruding from the surface of the canvas to simulate the rich, textured environment of the lagoon. Across the canvas, Doig has flicked small specks of white paint, creating a painterly smoke screen, which, like static on a television screen, forces the viewer to explore negative space. Splashes and drips of wet paint circulate the landscape, recalling the kinetic action painting of Jackson Pollock. The effect is almost hallucinogenic, the artist’s hand and the viewer’s eye chasing across the surface of the canvas. As the artist has explained, ‘[for me] painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it… [The size of paintings] is about the idea of getting absorbed into them, so you physically get lost’. (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’ in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 33).
Random bursts of texture create a visually arresting counterpoint to the smooth, sanguine red, gold, and ochre paint that runs in gentle waves through the water, applied with the face and profile of the artist’s palette knife. At the water’s edge, red gives way to forest green and a bright, moonlit clearing populated with broken trees. Across the composition short wooden stumps interrupt the swamp’s wet, marshy territory. In places Doig has paid particular attention to the bark of a tree, creating dark imprints in his palette knife’s pale, smoothly applied paint, to suggest the pattern of a Silver Birch. Beneath the bright drips and spatters of paint, Doig allows dark antecedent layers to rise up, creating a sense of the deep, ominous water below. Standing modestly at the lakeside is a small log cabin surrounded by bright white ribbons of paint. Doig has painted a wealth of trees, their vertiginous trunks standing barren in the eerie landscape. For every tree there shoots up another, obscuring the horizon, save for the round low-lying moon that illuminates the sky.