Peter Doig (b. 1959)
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Peter Doig (b. 1959)

Figures in Trees

Peter Doig (b. 1959)
Figures in Trees
signed, titled and dated 'Figures in Trees Peter Doig 1997/98' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
91¾ x 67in. (233 x 170cm.)
Painted in 1997-98
Victoria Miro Gallery, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998.
A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier, Peter Doig, London 2007 (illustrated in colour, p. 130).
Kiel, Kunsthalle, Peter Doig: Blizzard Seventy-Seven, March-April 1998, no. 26 (illustrated in colour, p. 113). This exhibition later travelled to Nurnberg, Kunsthalle, April-June 1998 and London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, June-August 1998.
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, The School of London and Their Friends: the Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians, October 2000-January 2001, no. 31 (illustrated in colour, p. 66). This exhibition later travelled to Purchase, Neuberger Museum of Art, January-May 2001.
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Lot Essay

Painted in 1997-98, Figures in Trees is filled with the mood of mystery so distinctive in Peter Doig's pictures. These figures in the woodland appear to be caught in the middle of some narrative, and yet the viewer is ignorant of the circumstances and even the identities. We have been plunged into the deep end of a world of nostalgia, of someone else's memories. We too are in the woods here, unable to tell quite what is happening or where we are. The scale of this painting insists upon our feeling absorbed by the forestry; meanwhile, the figure facing out of the work hints at some engagement between the protagonist and the person who has captured this image and, by extension, with the viewer. At the same time, the heavily worked paint surface of Figures in Trees demonstrates Doig's own fascination with the very act of painting.

Doig's paintings are almost always based on photographic sources, either found snapshots or pictures that the artist himself has taken. The fact that there is often no way of discerning which is which adds an air of mystery to his paintings. These are memories, frozen moments of someone else's life, but whose? This is the merest shard of a story, of someone else's existence. There is an element of the sinister in the mood and also in the semi-anonymity of the image. Somehow the viewer cannot help but imagine the worst. Is this the last photograph in some missing person's camera? Has an expedition gone wrong? It is telling that Doig himself has been influenced by horror movies, not only in his paintings of canoes based upon the dream sequence in Friday the Thirteenth, but also from the fact that he himself has worked painting scenery on the sets of such films. Perhaps in Figures in Trees, the figure on the right is trying to goad us into joining him amongst the thicker trees... Certainly, this picture fits the bill that Doig described when he said, 'In some way it is trying to find images that have some sort of resonance rather than meaning' (Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Charley's Space, exh. cat., Maastricht & Nîmes 2003, p. 31). Figures in Trees is packed with atmosphere, though it conveys little precise information.

More than horror, which only faintly perfumes Figures in Trees, there is a sense of nostalgia. And it is this disjointed nostalgia that is so affecting in his works. Somehow, the pictures appear not only to show the old photographs of strangers, but also images that relate to our own memories. He has taken sources, some of them from his own life, that somehow gain some universality in their translation into oils. The faces blur and become the faces that we ourselves could recognise; the scenery changes and becomes scenery that relates possibly to our own lives. And yet, through it all, Figures in Trees appears indelibly Canadian. Although Doig left Canada to pursue his studies in art in London, his works became suffused with a certain Canadian quality. It is this memory of home that somehow the artist translates to the viewer. We too are homesick when confronted with Doig's paintings, which themselves are often based on photos that have merely chanced their way into his life and his studio:

'All of the paintings have an element of autobiography in them, but I resist making the autobiographical readings overly specific. A lot of the paintings aren't of Canadian subjects, but somehow they always end up looking Canadian-- it's strange. I'm aware that I can't get away from Canada, because my formative years were spent there. During the time that I returned to Canada I tried to make a painting of the landscape en plein air, and I found it impossible to have either a focus or distance on that image. I was much more comfortable with looking at something on a page, as a way to contain the image. On my return I would go to Canada House in London and look through the brochures advertising holidays in northern Canada. And I discovered a whole set of images that refer to this almost dream-like notion of what these places are actually like, images that described an almost idealized idea of the wilderness experience' (Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott & C. Grenier, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 131).

Thus while the viewer is affected, before Figures in Trees, by the artist's nostalgia, we find that we are in fact homesick for a concentrated and confected Canada of the mind and of the imagination.

Doig manages to make this nostalgia universal, something with which the viewer can relate, through various techniques. In Figures in Trees, this is evident in the blurring of the faces, which become faces we might know, while the woodland itself could be woodland that we have known, through which we have wandered, even perhaps in our dreams. It is this realm of experience that is crucial. Doig is fascinated by the strange way in which a picture can prompt an emotional reaction, and the extent to which it is his paint, rather than the original image, that creates the reactions in his viewer. Somewhere in the process by which his physical exertions have translated a photograph into oils, they have gained a vast potency:

'I think that way that the paintings come out is more a way of trying to depict an image that is not about a reality, but one that is somehow in between the actuality of a scene and something that is in your head. I often use heightened colours to create a sense of the experience or mood or feeling of being there, but it's not a scientific process. I think the paintings always refer back to a reality that we all have experience of. We have all seen incredible sunsets. We've all experienced the sensation of light dropping and producing strange natural effects, and I think in a way I am using these natural phenomena and amplifying them through the materiality of paint and the activity of painting' (Doig, quoted in ibid., p. 132).

With this in mind, one understands Doig's statement that, 'I never try to create real spaces-- only painted spaces. That's all I am interested in. That may be why there is never really any specific time or place (or sometimes even season...) in my paintings' (Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Charley's Space, op.cit., p. 33). In Figures in Trees, the painterly qualities of the picture are emphasised by the almost formal lattice-work created by the trees and branches that dominate so much of the canvas, a factor that is emphasised by the snowy foreground that appears as an off-white strip at the bottom. These create an almost abstracted effect, Doig exploring paint and the act of painting as much as he is exploring the photograph, which has provided a pretext. It is Doig's own exploration of the canvas, and not the figures' exploration of the woods, that we are discovering. Each tree, obscuring our view, provides a river of movement to the artist that has been captured in oils. At the same time, the canvas itself, the two-dimensional picture, is as impenetrable as the woodland. Discussing his relationship to the landscape tradition, and the relationship between the pictorial space and the represented space, Doig pointed out that,

'one shouldn't forget that Romantic paintings are pre-photographic, pre-film stuff. They had a different job to do for a different agenda. Since the fifties and sixties of the last century, there is no other responsibility than the space that is confined within the painting. I have to find out how the picture works, and making the thing is the most important of all, the execution to make it into a painting. I wouldn't do it otherwise, it's the act that is to be seen-- when you paint something it becomes a fact. At the same time, it's a question of how much you let the material take over' (Doig, quoted in H. Fricke, 'Drifter: An Interview with Peter Doig', 2004, reproduced on DB Artmag at

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