‘The building took me by surprise as a piece of architecture. But it was not until I saw the photographs I had taken of the building through the trees that it became interesting. That made me go back and look at it again. I was surprised by the way the building transformed itself from a piece of architecture into a feeling. It was all emotion suddenly’
(P. Doig, quoted in T. Adams, ‘Record Painter’, in The Observer, 27 January 2008).
‘At the heart of Tate Britain's retrospective of Peter Doig is a room of paintings for which the artist is perhaps most known: the “Concrete Cabin” series ... Among these works, Cabin Essence, 1993-94, is one of the best, featuring a large expanse of forest with strange floating leaves of paint, composed as though the whole image were a reflection in water ... the emphasis is less on the functional clarity of the architecture than on the mysterious foreground, which evokes the dark, glowing surfaces of Gustave Moreau. Cabin Essence is a great lyrical work that, although telling no particular story, distills the striking format of a strong inner structure held within a field of floating organic and decorative elements, and, like its equally remarkable companion pieces, the image is one of rationality submerged in mystery’
(J-P. Stonard, ‘Peter Doig: Tate Britain, London’, in Artforum, April 2008, p. 361).
‘Whereas other buildings had represented a family or maybe a person somehow, this building seemed to represent thousands of people ... I went for walk in the woods on one visit, and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew ... seeing it through the trees, that is when I found it striking’
(P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 16).
‘[Doig’s] best work occupies some uneasy space between anecdote and abstract; it never lets you forget either its reference in the real world, nor its painterly surface. Alongside his canoe pictures, the best expression of this is perhaps his Concrete Cabin series’
(T. Adams, ‘Record Painter’, in The Observer, 27 January 2008).
‘I had intended these paintings to be about the act of looking through ... to find focus. I purposely painted the manmade buildings through the trees rather than paint them first, then paint a screen of trees [or] nature on top. I had seen Cézanne do this a lot – the light of architecture glimpsed’
(P. Doig in conversation with R. Shiff, 2007, quoted in R. Schiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 38).
‘Instead of painting the façade of a building and then shrouding it in trees I would pick the architecture through the foliage, so that the picture would push itself up to your eye. I thought that was a much more real way of looking at things, because that is the way the eye looks: you are constantly looking through the things, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time’
(P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London 2008, p. 13).
‘With the Corbusier/Briey paintings, I was trying to depict the movement of eye – not to paint a still. The eye never sees a “still”’
(P. Doig in conversation with R. Shiff, 2007, quoted in R. Schiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 39).
A masterpiece of Peter Doig’s early oeuvre, Cabin Essence is the largest and finest work within his celebrated series of Concrete Cabins. Painted between 1993 and 1994, it represents Doig’s most powerful and virtuosic engagement with Le Corbusier’s abandoned Modernist dream: the Unité d’Habitation at Briey-en-Forêt in northern France. Gleaming like a beacon through dense layers of trees, the building became the subject of Doig’s own recurring reverie between 1991 and 1998, giving rise to his first and only discrete series of paintings. Working from a sequence of film stills derived from his own video footage, Doig attempted to distil the memory of the encounter to its most lucid form. With its monumental scale and near-holographic surface, Cabin Essence stands alone as a moment of breakthrough. The concrete structure is destabilised, liberated and illuminated within the fluid memory-space of the canvas. Liquescent ribbons of russet, green, yellow and blue run down the length of the picture plane in shimmering, translucent bands. A teeming canopy of vibrant, stippled pigment rains down upon the forest floor, transforming it into an exotic, unearthly paradise. At times, the paint hovers upon the surface like a watery reflection; elsewhere it is encrusted and impenetrable, like fragments of bark taped into a scrapbook. Suddenly, a floating congregation of thick, intricately-carved globules interrupt our vision. Recalling the traces of paint splattered upon the surface of the film stills, they transport us back to the realm of physical reality. A veil descends; déjà-vu takes hold; a single flash of electric blue pierces the surface like a gateway to another world. In Cabin Essence, Doig gives form to the invisible workings of vision and memory. Within the prismatic depths of the painting, he invites us to experience the essence of a moment suspended in the oneiric drift of his psyche.
Of the nine paintings that constitute the Concrete Cabins, Doig has acknowledged Cabin Essence as the pinnacle of his efforts – an accolade reflected in its illustrious exhibition history. It was the centrepiece of the original suite of Concrete Cabins conceived for the exhibition space at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, where the series was first shown in 1994. There, its companions included Concrete Cabin (1991-1992) – the first in the series, now housed in the Leicester Arts and Museum Service - and Boiler House (1994), a promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The same year, it was a highlight of Doig’s Turner Prize exhibition at Tate, London, alongside two earlier works from the series, as well as the seminal painting Ski Jacket (1994, now held in the Tate’s permanent collection), and the 1993 painting Pond Life. In 2008, Cabin Essence returned to Tate as part of Doig’s first major touring retrospective, where it took pride of place in a room dedicated to the series, accompanied by a lengthy commentary in Richard Shiff’s catalogue essay. Reviewing the exhibition, John-Paul Stonard wrote, ‘At the heart of Tate Britain's retrospective of Peter Doig is a room of paintings for which the artist is perhaps most known: the “Concrete Cabin” series ... Among these works, Cabin Essence, 1993-94, is one of the best ... [It] is a great lyrical work that, although telling no particular story, distills the striking format of a strong inner structure held within a field of floating organic and decorative elements’ (J-P. Stonard, ‘Reviews and Previews’, in Artforum, April 2008). Most recently, Cabin Essence was included in the artist’s acclaimed retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, which completed its journey at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, less than two months ago.
‘THE EYE NEVER SEES A “STILL”’: THE MAKING OF CABIN ESSENCE
Doig first visited Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in 1991. As a recent graduate living in London, he was part of a group of artists, architects and designers involved in the building’s restoration. Built in 1957, and abandoned less than twenty years later, the Unité was one of several concrete structures that proposed a new form of democratic living in post-War Europe. Based on the Narkomfin building in Moscow, it contained a complex internal system of ‘vertical cities’ – or ‘cabins’ – designed to allow for a complete way of life in one building. The social, economic and architectural failure of the project saw the Unité at Briey left to the mercy of the forest. This forsaken temple of Modernist aspiration – an impeccable architectural grid subsumed by the chaos of nature – had a profound impact upon Doig. ‘Whereas other buildings had represented a family or maybe a person somehow, this building seemed to represent thousands of people’, he recalls. ‘… I went for walk in the woods on one visit, and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew … seeing it through the trees, that is when I found it striking’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 16). Doig recounts how his journey to Briey had taken him through the war graveyards of northeast France. The Unité d’Habitation had been just one of the many promised solutions to twentieth-century conflict. By the time Doig arrived at the site, the derelict building had already been painted white: shining like a light at the end of a tunnel, its utopian fantasy was momentarily restored.
Back in the studio, Doig attempted to recreate the sensation of looking through the trees by placing himself at progressive layers of remove from his subject. His original colour video footage, filmed on location at Briey, was cut and spliced into a sequence of black and white stills. ‘At first I made the films walking slowly towards the building’, the artist recalls. ‘The stills from these films were just too wavy and unusable for me. I then stood still and hand-held the camera for two minutes. From these films I got the stills I wanted – a suggestion of the eye moving’ (P. Doig, email to R. Shiff, 24 July 2007, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Primal’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2014, p. 85). Doig later weakened the resolution of the stills by photocopying them into a book of blurred vignettes. ‘I was trying to depict the movement of eye – not to paint a still’, he explains. ‘The eye never sees a “still”’ (P. Doig in conversation with R. Shiff, 2007, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 39). In Cabin Essence, Doig’s reproduction of the paint-splattered surface of the stills creates a further point of deflection. Rendered with exquisite detail, and protruding from the surface like topographical landmarks, these quixotic formations remind the viewer that we are no longer simply looking through the forest: we are looking down the lens of history, through the slippages of time and place, to an elusive vestige of the imagination. In this way, Cabin Essence becomes as much of a remote illusion as the Unité d’Habitation itself: a dream that will forever remain just beyond our reach.
‘THE LIGHT OF ARCHITECTURE GLIMPSED’: DOIG’S DIALOGUE WITH THE MASTERS
As one of the great postmodern painters, Doig’s interrogation of vision operates through a complex engagement with art history, transforming a wealth of influences and painterly languages into his own quintessential style. Cabin Essence is one of the most sophisticated early summations of this process: the legacies of Pierre Bonnard, Piet Mondrian, Gerhard Richter, Edward Hopper, Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, Gustave Klimt and Francis Bacon – among others – are dissected and recombined into Doig’s own distinct vocabulary. Most notably, the work reinvigorates Paul Cézanne’s collapse of pictorial space, blurring the relationship between foreground and background. Through a veil of fronds and tendrils, the chalky white surface of the building rushes to the frontal plane, only to recede again behind a bejewelled carpet of pigment. ‘I had seen Cézanne do this a lot – the light of architecture glimpsed’, recalls Doig (P. Doig in conversation with R. Shiff, 2007, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 38). As he goes on to explain, ‘Instead of painting the façade of a building and then shrouding it in trees I would pick the architecture through the foliage, so that the picture would push itself up to your eye. I thought that was a much more real way of looking at things, because that is the way the eye looks: you are constantly looking through the things, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London 2008, p. 13). For Cézanne, this technique was a way of amplifying the sensory immediacy of his subjects. In Cabin Essence, however, there is a twist. The ‘light of architecture glimpsed’ is saturated by a curious infra-red tint: a visceral, retinal heat that permeates the composition like a network of blood vessels. Cézanne becomes Bonnard as we realise that what we are looking at might, in fact, be no more than the insides of our eyelids.
The contrast between the grid-like edifice and the luscious effusion of the forest may be seen in relation to the work of Mondrian – an artist who, in many ways, bridges the gap between Cézanne and Le Corbusier. Over the course of his career, Mondrian transformed his figurative depictions of nature into the rigid geometric structures for which he is best known. The ‘light of architecture glimpsed’, in Mondrian’s hands, became a series of gleaming white planes, punctuated by colour and line, that sought to reduce visual phenomena to their bare essence. In Cabin Essence, this process is rewound to a point of delicate balance between figuration and abstraction. The singular grid is replaced by a network of shifting, interlocking structures: the vertical trees, the horizontal windows, the sweep of the forest floor and the chorus of leaves and flowers are held in a shifting state of tension, as if caught in a trellis or spider’s web. The distillation of visual experience takes place not by excavating and spotlighting the grid, but by obscuring it beneath layers of paint, allowing it to linger behind the surface of the work. In this regard, the work resonates with Richter’s abstract canvases, which Doig would have recently encountered in the artist’s major touring retrospective of 1993. Doig’s translucent veil of striated trees - layered, scraped and erased to reveal ghostly underlying strata of paint - is certainly reminiscent of the German master’s squeegee. Ultimately, Mondrian, Le Corbusier and Richter are united by their desire to contain the diffuse nature of reality within a single structure. Playing with the boundary between structure and disorder, Cabin Essence inherits this mantle.
At the same time, Cabin Essence is intricately bound up with the psychological resonance of the work’s subject matter. As Doig explains, ‘I was surprised by the way the building transformed itself from a piece of architecture into a feeling. It was all emotion suddenly’ (P. Doig, quoted in T. Adams, ‘Record Painter’, in The Observer, 27 January 2008). There are overtones of Hopper in the work’s dark, vacant windows, haunted by traces of long-lost human presence. As Virginia Button has written, ‘The menacing power of nature is strongly conveyed in Doig’s paintings of this motif ... Cabin Essence of 1993-4 shows the building screened by a wall of impenetrable trees which recall the claustrophobic, prison bar trees depicted by the forerunners of the fin de siècle Symbolist movement, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh’ (V. Button, The Turner Prize, London 2007, pp. 111-112). A sense of the uncanny – the unheimlich – permeates the scene: shards of light pierce the long shadows; reality slips into an uncertain haze. As it did for Munch and van Gogh, the forest comes to represent the unknowable, drifting territory between the eye and the mind. Doig’s fluid, detailed brushwork certainly invokes the gestural language of Expressionism, even – to some extent – echoing the ‘shuttering’ technique espoused by Bacon. The vertical sweep of his brush stutters, interrupted by thick streaks of impasto, coagulations of pigment and gnarled, splattered textures. As we gaze into the depths of the forest, Doig’s ‘prison bar trees’ are transformed into almost cinematic illusions: like a video tape paused on rewind, or a sudden intrusion of grainy static, they fluctuate as if suspended in mid-air. The effect is a disarming yet powerful reminder of the work’s filmic origins.
Despite the work’s rich art historical lineage, time and again we are brought back to Doig’s own world. Memories of his childhood in Canada, with its isolated dwellings and dense pine forests, linger at the edges of Cabin Essence. Indeed, Doig has commented that he ‘was surprised to see how much [the photographs] reminded me of paintings I had made prior of houses hidden in nature’ (P. Doig, email to R. Shiff, 25 July 2015, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Primal’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2014, p. 85). Traces of Okahumkee (Some Other People’s Blues) (1990), Rosedale (1991) and The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991) hover in the background. At the same time, however, the work looks forward – to the balmy rainforests of Trinidad, where he would make his home at the end of the decade. There are premonitions of the dense jungle of Grand Riviere (2001-2002) and the shimmering veil of Black Curtain (Towards Monkey Island) (2004). As tundra and tropics converge in the shadows of Le Corbusier’s failed utopia, Cabin Essence becomes a projection, perhaps, of Doig’s own abandoned, forgotten and longed-for territories. ‘I can remember the terror of the pitch black, with the densest trees around’, he recalls. ‘When you do finally see the light of a house it’s incredibly welcoming’ (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 37). Suffused with luminosity, as if backlit from some mysterious source, Cabin Essence may be understood as a moment of homecoming within an uprooted, itinerant oeuvre.
‘I had intended these paintings to be about the act of looking through ... to find focus’, claims Doig (P. Doig in conversation with R. Shiff, 2007, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 38). In Cabin Essence, the subject of this focus is not only the memory of the Unité d’Habitation, but also Doig’s own painterly language. In many ways, the work may be understood as a coming-of-age within his oeuvre, absorbing and realigning the influence of his forbears into a singular aesthetic vision. Both wistful projection and exotic daydream, Cabin Essence represents the touchstone of a practice that has repeatedly attempted to capture the intangible workings of perception, recognition and remembrance. In this painting, Doig establishes what would become the foundational principle of his art: that it is only with the distance engendered by time and place that we are able to comprehend the essence of our own reality.
*The World Justice Project is an independent multi-disciplinary organization devoted to advancing the rule of law (defined as: accountability of public and private actors under just laws; open governmental processes and dispute resolution rendered by competent, ethical and independent representatives and neutrals) around the world. The Project believes that adherence to this universal sense of the rule of law is the foundation of communities of peace, equity and opportunity. Our work focuses on three areas: research and scholarship; measurement of adherence by means of a comprehensive index covering more than 100 countries and incubation of practical on the ground programs that in some fashion advance the rule of law. Our funding comes from an array of sources, including private foundations, businesses, individuals and governments. To learn more please visit our website. http://worldjusticeproject.org/