‘It could be the light in Trinidad. I never thought about colour that much with my early paintings. I used the colour I thought was appropriate, whereas now maybe colour is becoming a more predominant concern. Can I make an orange painting? Can I make a blue painting? It started to come about in the canoe paintings and 100 Years Ago, where I was covering the canvas with big expanses of colour. Colour in this part of the world is very intense, and frequently you see incredible combinations. These clashing colours start making sense in the light’ – P. Doig
‘I think seeing the ocean, being on an island and seeing these islands around the island and the experience of it all kind of in a way opened things up, made the paintings a bit more expansive’ – P. Doig
‘[Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle is] one of the greatest paintings I’ve ever seen. There’s so much to look at, and yet it’s so empty and so vague in what it’s depicting. It’s so brave in its division of space, and it constantly confuses you because you don’t know really what you’re looking at. It seems to be a constantly questioning painting and, in many ways, incomplete’ – P. Doig
‘I guess I was looking for something else ... I felt like I had arrived somewhere very special. I knew the place because I had lived here for five years as a child. I had left at the age of seven, but I still recognized parts of the city and found some of the sights, sounds and smells familiar’ – P. Doig
‘In Canada the canoe is an emotive kind of a national symbol ... An incredible symbol of freedom and movement and all that sadness that goes with it. The shape of it really fascinates me. It’s almost like the perfect form’ – P. Doig
Part of Peter Doig’s seminal 100 Years Ago series, Island Painting is an exquisite depiction of one of the artist’s most renowned motifs. One of only three canvases in the series showing a full length canoe against a tropical island backdrop, Island Painting is closely related to 100 Years Ago (Carrera) (2001) in the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and 100 Years Ago (2000) housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Set amidst shimmering aquamarine waters where the sweltering tropical heat creates an almost dreamlike mirage, Doig’s bearded protagonist stares out at the viewer. Inspired by a month-long artist’s residency on Trinidad – Doig’s childhood home – the 100 Years Ago paintings represent an important new chapter within the definitive series of canoe paintings that punctuates his oeuvre. From its earliest appearance in the landmark 1990 painting Swamped, to its recapitulation in the 1997-98 masterpiece Canoe Lake, the canoe had already become something of a touchstone within Doig’s practice: a primal symbol of longing and mystery. In Island Painting, it assumes a new significance: appropriated from a 1970s rock album vinyl, along with the haunting figure seated inside, it becomes a hallucinogenic metaphor for the oneiric drift of the artist’s psyche. Situated between the quivering horizontal bands of sea and sky, its elongated form dissolves into a holographic blur. Divorced from its original context, the canoe and its occupant embody the fragile sense of displacement – of lapsed time, faded memory and déjà-vu – invoked during Doig’s brief return to Trinidad. Through translucent layers of pigment, Doig builds a kaleidoscopic panorama, juxtaposing iridescent veils of azure, turquoise and aquamarine with delicate marbled swathes of orange, pink and lilac. Blurring the boundaries between the real, the illusory and the imaginary, Island Painting captures the powerful sense of nostalgia that, the following year, would prompt the artist’s permanent relocation to the island.
Doig’s art operates through a process of sensory dislocation, born of his own itinerant upbringing between Scotland, Trinidad and the West Coast of Canada. Within an oeuvre of half-remembered landscapes and images, veiled by time and distance, the canoe is one of Doig’s most powerful symbols. His earliest use of the motif was inspired by a film still from the 1980 horror film Friday 13th – a sinister image of a woman asleep in an isolated boat. Throughout Doig’s works of the 1990s, it was responsible for establishing the sense of atmospheric foreboding, horizontal layering and illusory depth that brought his work to prominence. By the time of Island Painting, however, a new source image had come into play: the inside cover sleeve of the vinyl Duane Allman: An Anthology, which featured the members of The Allman Brothers Band seated inside a long red canoe. Doig’s appropriation isolates the bassist Berry Oakley, whose spectral, solitary presence would come to define the 100 Years Ago series. In these works, the canoe becomes an almost spiritual symbol of transition and impermanence – of passing time, of the ebb and flow of consciousness, of journeys past and places lost. ‘In Canada the canoe is an emotive kind of a national symbol’, Doig explains. ‘... An incredible symbol of freedom and movement and all that sadness that goes with it’ (P. Doig in conversation with U. Küster, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2014, p. 13). Drifting like a talisman from tundra to tropics, the canoe migrates seamlessly into Doig’s Trinidadian daydream, uniting a multitude of references within the flooded arena of his canvas.
The works initiated during Doig’s brief return to Trinidad in 2000, and completed back in his London studio, mark a critical turning point in his practice: the onset of a deep, heartfelt yearning for the land that suffused his earliest memories. Much of Doig’s previous output had been rooted in the Canadian landscape of his adolescence: its pine forests, snow-capped mountains and wide-open spaces. As Island Painting demonstrates, however, his tropical sojourn sparked a dramatic change in his visual language. Here, the thick, encrusted surfaces that had dominated his previous output gradually begin to dissipate, morphing into luminous skeins of liquid paint, sequentially layered like waterlogged reflections. There is a newfound lightness to his brushwork – a liberated sense of fluidity, a delicacy of touch and a heightened chromatic spectrum saturated with highly-keyed blue and orange tones. ‘I think seeing the ocean, being on an island and seeing these islands around the island and the experience of it all kind of in a way opened things up, made the paintings a bit more expansive’, recalls Doig (P. Doig in conversation with A. Cook, http://peterdoig.mbam.qc.ca/en/artist/ [accessed 20 December 2015]). The Trinidadian light had a profound influence on his palette, and it is in the concentrated azure and fiery glow of Island Painting that we begin to see the depth of its impact. ‘Colour in this part of the world is very intense, and frequently you see incredible combinations’, he explains. ‘These clashing colours start making sense in the light’ (P. Doig in conversation with K. Scott, A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 34).
Throughout his career, Doig has consistently looked to the influence his forebears, amalgamating the various legacies of twentieth-century art into his own distinct painterly language. In Island Painting, Doig extends the lineage of those Modernist painters who redefined the relationship between colour and form. The artist has explained how his first tropical paintings were directly inspired by Henri Matisse’s 1908 painting Bathers with a Turtle – a work which the artist would have seen at The Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, on the occasion of his solo exhibition there in 2000. He later described it as ‘one of the greatest paintings I’ve ever seen. There’s so much to look at, and yet it’s so empty and so vague in what it’s depicting. It’s so brave in its division of space, and it constantly confuses you because you don’t know really what you’re looking at’ (P. Doig, quoted in D. Solway, ‘Peter Doig’, in W Magazine, November 2008). It is a statement that speaks directly to the present work, whose bipartite division into languid horizontal strips creates a kind of abstract painterly haze that resists narrative interpretation. Recalling the ethereal colour fields of Mark Rothko, and the Cloisonnist planes of Paul Gauguin, these vibrating expanses of pigment eradicate any sense of pictorial perspective, bringing the image directly to the frontal plane. As figuration slowly warps into abstraction, the distinction between the real and the fantastical begins to crumble. Indeed, it is here that Doig establishes himself as the contemporary heir to Gauguin: just as the French master painted semi-fictive visions of idealised island paradises, Island Painting represents a figment of the artist’s imagination, born in the collision of memory, nostalgia and desire. Like Bathers with a Turtle, Island Painting is a picture of an indeterminate reality: eternally suggestive yet devoid of any fixed meaning.
At the same time, as with Doig’s earliest canoe works, the delicate beauty of Island Painting is underpinned by an almost cinematic sense of unease – a disquieting menace that recalls the brooding psychodramas of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh. The looming presence of the Island of Carrera, home to a prison since 1877, invites comparison with Arnold Böcklin’s foreboding Symbolist masterpiece Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead). Ultimately, however, the works elegiac overtones are concentrated in the stark gaze of work’s ghostly protagonist: a gaze which, according to Doig, ‘looks right through you’ (P. Doig, quoted in B. Schwenk, ‘Greetings from a Carrera’, Metropolitan, exh. cat., Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover, 2004, p. 83). Wrenched from his original context, cut and spliced into the artist’s vision, the figure may be said to embody Doig’s own sense of dislocation as he began to dream again of Trinidad – a place both familiar and half-forgotten. Like strains of music in the distance, a photograph glimpsed through layers of dust or a film paused on rewind, Island Painting is caught between states of consciousness – between past and present, waking and sleeping, recognition and estrangement. It is precisely this sensation – of having been there before, of having seen or heard it in a dream – that is so eloquently captured in its watery depths.