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 mesmerising 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 Nu¨rnberg 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 the 13th, Doig builds a shuddering tension in his painting.
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.
Peter Doig (b. 1959), Swamped, 1990. Oil on canvas. 77 ½ × 95 in. (197 × 241 cm.) Estimate on request. This work is offered in Looking Forward to the Past — A curated Evening Sale on 11 May in New York
Here 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 recognisable reality to something more magical’.
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.
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