A spell-binding landscape rendered on a monumental scale, Almost Grown provides proof of why Peter Doig is widely seen as the best painter working today. Painted in 2000, it was exhibited at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin before touring several museums in Canada, including the National Gallery in Ottowa. It returned to Dublin in 2002, where it was exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art for the next six years. Showcasing Doig’s prodigious painterly intuition, Almost Grown portrays a strange hinterland somewhere between fantasy and reality, past and present; twilight realms that elude most other mediums. Featuring his most well-known motifs, including a solitary figure, frozen lake, and isolated cabin, it draws upon the artist’s recollections of a childhood spent in rural Canada that has informed and inspired some of his most celebrated paintings. Generously infused with imagination and nostalgia, these pictures manage to evoke not simply the feeling of seeing the landscape and being within it, but also its deeper emotional resonances. As the artist has explained, “I think the way that the paintings come out is more a way of trying to depict an image that is not about reality, but one that is somehow in between the actuality of a scene and something that is in your head” (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, exh. cat., Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, 2003, p. 18). An unapologetically figurative work of exquisite sensitivity, Almost Grown is a consummate example of the power of painting within a visually saturated age.
Measuring over 6 feet in width and two meters in height, the work immerses the viewer in an enticing landscape of the artist’s imagining. We look through a dark lattice of slender tree trunks and spindly branches to an icy lake, beyond which lies a snow-covered forest. A cabin, half-submerged in snow, is just visible on the bank. Paths crisscross the frozen water. At their intersection stands a small young boy, dressed in warm winter clothes. With his hands by his side, he steadfastly returns our gaze. To draw the attention of the viewer to this delicately drawn figure, Doig has structured the painting in horizontal bands of cool and warm tones: fiery yellows and oranges run along the top and bottom of the work, while the middle section is almost monochrome. Executed in the palest of greys, blues, and yellows, this area appears as though color has faded away, the way it might do in an old photograph. The only hint of warmth here is found in the gloves and hat of the boy, which are picked out in a vivid orange, preventing him from being entirely camouflaged against his snowy surroundings. To unite the composition, the trunks of the trees provide strong verticals that pull the eye up to the top of the canvas, while their branches direct our gaze back to the center of the painting. The surface texture reinforces the painting’s rich tapestry of contrasts. The trees in the foreground are rendered with impasto daubs and dense strokes, which strengthens the illusion that we are standing amongst them. The more distant scene of the lake has been achieved with more fluid brushwork and less opaque paint, almost as if it has been executed in watercolors. Not only does this create a sense of physical depth, but it reinforces a sense of temporal distance too— as though by peering through the forest to the lake we have caught a glimpse of the past.
Doig’s atmospheric compositions are usually comprised from an amalgamation of sources, ranging from lingering memories and personal photographs to pages torn from holiday brochures, favorite album covers, and evocative film stills. There is something especially autobiographical about Almost Grown, however, as its nostalgic title suggests. The boy pictured in the work is on a journey to becoming an adult, just as Doig was when he lived in Canada. He has wandered away from the cabin, a warm haven within a hostile landscape, to venture outside alone. There he faces a set of paths that travel in four diverging directions, which may offer a metaphor for the possible life choices that will soon be facing him. The idea of aging is also alluded to by the forest that frames the boy: Doig has juxtaposed verdant green shoots rising determinedly from the ground with stark winter branches that bear a solitary dying leaf.
While Doig’s work is always tethered to recognizable experiences in the real world, it engages with the idea that painting is ultimately a creative activity; unlike photography, it lends itself willingly to subjectivity and fantasy. With its opulent coloration that pertains to a forest fire or a blazing sunset, Almost Grown intensifies the unexpected drama that the natural world can provide. Following in the 18th century tradition of the sublime, it seeks to evoke a sense of being awe-inspired, and even transformed, by an encounter with a landscape. The diminutive figure in Almost Grown not only connects the viewer with the artist, but creates an unsettling sense of man’s ultimate insignificance before nature. As the artist has said, “I often use heightened colours to create a sense of the experience or mood or feeling of being there... 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” (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott, C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig (Contemporary Artists), London, 2007, p. 132).
The Canadian landscape has long been a source of inspiration for the artist. Born in Scotland in 1959, he moved to Canada at the age of seven, only returning to Britain to in 1979. He remained in London for the next decade, attending Wimbledon School of Art, Saint Martin’s School of Art, and Chelsea School of Art, where he received his MA in 1990. Despite his long absence from Canada, his brush led him back to it time and time again. As he has described, “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” (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott & C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London, 2007, p. 131).
As Doig suggests, his paintings of landscapes are never straight-forwardly representative; they are executed with an acute awareness of the personal and cultural associations that shape our perceptions of place. “I’m interested in mediated, almost clichéd notions of a pastoral landscape, in how notions about the landscape are manifested and reinforced in, say, advertising or film,” he has said. “Yet at the same time many of the paintings are rooted in my own experience. There exists a tension between the often generic representation of a pastoral scene and the investment in my own experiences of the landscape” (P. Doig, quoted in H. Wagner, “The Fortunate Travel,” Metropolitan, B. Schwenk et al. (eds.), exh. cat., Cologne, 2004).
Given its traditional techniques and subject matter, it seems remarkable that Almost Grown was created at the end of a decade that saw the rise of the Young British Artists. Doig’s majestic paintings presented a bold contrast to the conceptual interests and cool, urban aesthetic that was predominant in the art world at the time. Nevertheless, testament to its resonance, his work attracted mounting acclaim throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He won the Whitechapel Artist Award in 1991 and the John Moores Prize with his painting Blotter in 1993. In 1994, he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. In the years since, Doig’s commitment to figurative painting has never wavered, and neither has its power to affect us. Contemplative, sensitive, and rich in visual and narrative drama, his paintings— especially his larger, immersive works such as Almost Grown—offer an escape to an other-worldly realm. In the artist’s own words, the places depicted in his work are “a kind of portal to possibilities in painting. The painting is what it becomes, and when I start I don’t know what that will be. That’s what makes the process so fascinating” (P. Doig, quoted in M. Hudson, “Peter Doig interview: the triumph of painting,” The Telegraph, 2 August 2013).