‘In Gasthof, for instance, I made drawings and sketches of the coloured stone wall. I was first engaged in painting the wall, a dam actually, and the problem was how to structure the gateway. I wanted to find some gatekeepers for the gateway, but before I could find the right ones I painted a few versions without any. Originally I was going to use a musician, maybe a Neil Young or a Gram Parsons character, from one of their early 1970s costumed album covers. I wanted someone whose clothes were out of sync with their own time but who was dressed in such a way that the fashion reminded you of the late nineteenth-century painting or literature. But I thought if I used a known figure it would be way too specific... so I searched around and eventually found a photograph of myself and a friend dressed as two very minor crowd scene characters from a production of Petrouchka. We were working backstage at the theatre at the time. As soon as I put these two figures down in the painting it was like they had always been there’ (P. Doig, quoted in ‘Interview by Kitty Scott’, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 39).
An extremely rare self-portrait by the artist, Peter Doig’s Gasthof, 2002-2004, comes to life under a scintillating night sky, as the silhouette of a single canoe drifts idly in the distant lake. One of two key, large scale paintings featuring the artist set within this surreal dreamlike vision, the other iteration, Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, 2000-2002, forms part of the prestigious collection of The Art Institute of Chicago. Inviting the viewer to cross the threshold into this imaginary world, two mysterious gatekeepers, costumed in nineteenth century regalia, stand guard to a place unknown. The sentinel characters appear like an apparition, their absinthe-tinted visages fading in and out of focus in the dusky, crepuscular light. The presence of the canoe– a touchstone of sorts for the artist across his oeuvre– appears as if to transport the artist to this realm of the imaginary. Begun in London in 2002 and shipped to Trinidad when he moved there, this work is one of a small group of works which evolved during this key period of change for the artist. Gasthof was completed at a moment when the artist was in Trinidad and dreaming of Europe. The iridescent colour of this painting exemplifies the more-highly keyed tonalities that Doig was exploring during this period as he painted his remembrances from Trinidad. Shining sapphires and turquoises and bursts of green and yellow all combine over the expanse of midnight blue to add to the picture’s mood of dream-like other-worldliness, hinting at some twilit moment between night and day, a concept that is extended by the distinctive blue that dominates the palette. The light, gauzy layers of paint perform like the translucent curtain used in theatres, appearing opaque when lit from the front, but transparent when backlit. Indeed, this translucent quality in Gasthof evokes a mélange of Pierre Bonnard’s dreamlike imaginary, Marc Chagall’s topsy-turvy reveries, and Edvard Munch’s expressive visions. Doig’s abstract processes and formal compositional devices fuse the dreamily atmospheric and the reality of the figurative scene. Unveiled at the artist’s critically acclaimed exhibition Peter Doig – Metropolitan, at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, in 2004, Gasthof was also featured in the artist’s major exhibition No Foreign Lands at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
The move to Trinidad sparked a transformation in Doig’s technique in which he began to use delicate lines and veils of diaphanous colour. The artist describes this paradigm shift as that which inspired a series of ‘pure paintings, which evolve into a type of abstraction’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 37, pp. 19-20). This oneiric sense of wonderment is created by Doig’s vast array of painterly techniques. Although this is clearly a figurative image we are looking at, the composition is enshrouded in abstract processes: veils of translucent colour of liquid midnight blue and violets akin to Rothko are overlaid. Across the bottom half of the composition vertical strokes shoot up to form a meadow that recalls Francis Bacon’s grassy Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Built upon this scene, impastoed dollops of snow-white paint float over the thickly encrusted gem-studded wall with its coloured bricks alternating between glowing gumdrops and powdery Turkish Delight. Doig’s expert handling of paint builds a mesmeric composition which exists in the space between photographic reality and vivid memory, somewhere between the fantastic fairy tale and reality.
The otherworldly figures dissolving into the landscape represent a perfect moment of alignment between the various territories in which Doig operates: dreams, memories, travel and experiences. The subjects clearly hold an important place in the artist’s psyche, with Gasthof standing as a focused inquiry on the protagonists of this curious scene. Speaking of these characters in Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, Judith Nesbitt describes the uncanny double portrait: ‘Their costumes and moustaches make it impossible or irrelevant to decipher who is who. The painting sets up its own terms of reference and precipitates its own drama – resulting from the merging of the photograph with a nineteenth century postcard to create one of Doig’s most surreal apparitions. But our knowledge of the artist’s presence at the heart of the painting adds another layer of psychological complexity. A lark behind the scenes at the opera house becomes enshrined in a landscape of entrancement within which the artist stands, disguised’ (J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 17).
Fusing his personal snapshots with scenic postcards, Gasthof combines two disparate source images: the result is an image that seems displaced from both place and time. Just as a theatre backdrop sets the stage for dramatic production, Doig places his players upon a painted backdrop which relies less on the actual representation of space and more on the conveyance of action and mood. The backdrop hung across the back of this stage is appropriated from an antique pre-First World War postcard, circa 1910, depicting the Muldentenspree; an old German tavern from which the work is titled, and the dam and lake were derived. The origin of the figures harken from a photograph from Doig’s student art days in London, with the artist standing on the left. Having arrived in London in 1989 to study at Chelsea School of Art, the artist held a part time job as a dresser at the English National Opera with his friend Haydn Cottam. As such, Doig has returned to febrile memories of working at the Opera House, and looks to a photograph of the two friends dressed in costumes during a production of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (1911). Speaking of the application of this distinct memory, the artist recalled, ‘In Gasthof, for instance, I made drawings and sketches of the coloured stone wall. I was first engaged in painting the wall, a dam actually, and the problem was how to structure the gateway. I wanted to find some gatekeepers for the gateway, but before I could find the right ones I painted a few versions without any. Originally I was going to use a musician, maybe a Neil Young or a Gram Parsons character, from one of their early 1970s costumed album covers. I wanted someone whose clothes were out of sync with their own time but who was dressed in such a way that the fashion reminded you of the late nineteenth-century painting or literature. But I thought it I used a known figure it would be way too specific... so I searched around and eventually found a photograph of myself and a friend dressed as two very minor crowd scene characters from a production of Petrouchka. We were working backstage at the theatre at the time. As soon as I put these two figures down in the painting it was like they had always been there. (P. Doig, quoted in ‘Interview by Kitty Scott’, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 39).
This setting appears at once familiar yet foreign, an image that triggers a primeval memory through Doig’s masterful brushwork. Doig’s expressive use of colour and evocative handling of paint blurs the boundaries of what is real, imagined and remembered. Speaking of the Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, and of equal relevance here, Searle identifies: ‘Doig is of course, playing an ironic game with painting itself. Blobs of snow are also blizzard of paint. Briars and vines are tangles of drips and brush strokes. A painting’s surface can never be truly penetrated, because it is, quite literally, all there is to see, however much we might entertain the idea that the landscapes and figures and buildings are actually multiple, parallel worlds to our own, and inhabited by people much like ourselves, who move from place to place, appearing and disappearing from sight, just as we do to others, and others do in relation to us’ (A. Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 86).
Doig’s handling of the paint also produces a slippage of the landscape – his abstract techniques and experimental processes along with the limitless properties of his medium and its ability to resonate with the tones and textures of the natural landscape enable the image to remain enigmatically in the critical space between photographic reality and vivid memory. Doig’s remembrances are reflected in the manner in which he approached the painting. The wistful intermingling of joy and his melancholy colours capture Doig’s attitude towards painting. Tinged with nostalgia, this image, along with others that he has created throughout his travelling life, are the result of a desire to depict, capture and represent highly personal memories, feelings and experiences. Much in the way that Proust identified that our minds do not capture and relive static imagery, but moments or scenes that are re-played slightly differently each time according to our own mood and at a certain moment, so too does Doig’s painting capture this raw reality. A wholly whimsical approach, it is through theatrical expression that Gasthof perfectly encapsulates these dream-like visions and psychic distortions where the decorative curtain is drawn back to reveal a shimmering, brightly coloured spectacle of fragmentary motifs. The costumed gatekeepers enhance the oneiric atmosphere, which permeates the canvas, suggesting that it is the characters- indeed the artist himself – who is conjuring this dream-like vision.
A rare self-portrait, Gasthof is one of only a handful of works in the artists’ oeuvre where the artist appears. Indeed, it was first in Trinidad that the artist began to envision himself within his landscapes. This extends on the time honored tradition of artists engaging with nature by exploring the self through the landscape. As with all of Doig’s great paintings, here he balances the sense of his intellectual progression in painting in the late twentieth century with his acute relationship with tradition and most particularly Romanticism. The image of the man in nature speaks directly to the great German Romantic painters of the 19th Century and in this way Gasthof not only captures the sense of the artist’s relationship with the landscape but also offers an oneiric atmosphere of man’s place in a vast universe. With its vivid expressionist departure from reality, estranged from its original source, Doig’s surreal, hallucinogenic palette has introduced an existential dimension, prompting the viewer to ask questions about the picture itself, the world it represents, and our own place within our own surroundings.
Doig’s work consistently operates through this process of displacement. His painterly practice evokes the place that Doig once called home. Indeed for Doig, the act of painting is always retrospective, referring not to his contemporary location but to places, people and moments suspended in the past. Just as Doig’s earlier iconic works of the Canadian landscape were realized in London, here the artist’s young adulthood in London is translated in Trinidad. Doig began painting Gasthof in London in 2002, and brought the painting with him when he moved to Port of Spain Trinidad, where it was finally completed in 2004. House of Pictures Carrera and Black Curtain were also initiated in London and completed in Trinidad. Those along with Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre (which was completed in London after his return from the Port of Spain residency in 2000) are considered a key ‘transitional’ works within the artist’s oeuvre. Painted from these archival images from his studio in Trinidad, this emotional complexity unites these surreal scenes with his prior oeuvre. The imagery leaves the viewer spell bound as if awoken from a lucid dream. It is this non-specific nature of the landscape in Gasthof which invites the beholder to share in the mental terrain of the picture plain. Speaking of this quality, the artist elucidated, ‘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., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2003, p. 18). Through its profoundly reflective subject matter and execution, the marriage of figurative memories and abstract painterly processes, Gasthof perfectly conjures an extraordinary envisaging of the artist himself.