'When I went to see the Le Corbusier building for the first time, I never dreamed that I would end up painting it. I went for a walk in the woods on one visit and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew. I had no desire to paint it on its own, but seeing it through the trees, that is when I found it striking' (P. Doig, quoted in Adrian Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 16).
An epic masterpiece of Peter Doig's unique imaginary, executed through a magical atmosphere and astounding technical virtuosity, The Architect's Home in the Ravine (1991) dates from a pivotal moment in the artist's career. Exquisitely rendered with rich, tactile, impasto paint across a sublime tapestry of a surface, the work offers a magical vision of a house, barely glimpsed through a veil of intricate, interlaced branches. Deep in a crisp, snow-filled forest at the height of winter, the enchanted house sits quietly before a glassy, ice-covered pool. Closely covered with verdant, evergreen trees, it recreates Canadian architect, Eberhard Zeidler's modernist home in Rosedale at the heart of the Toronto ravine. Doig returned to Canada with this scene in mind, fascinated by its inaccessibility; dense nature hiding away, the house allowing only glimpses of life through the trees. Working from photos he had taken of Zeidler's house in the ravine, Doig picked out the architecture through the branches, forming a new vision of the place brimming with a sense of wonder; a painterly meditation on the way we see. In The Architect's Home in the Ravine the composition falls in and out of focus from figurative to abstract, the eye marveling at the texture and the artist's exquisite gestures. Combining a vast array of painterly techniques to painstakingly build the surface from background to foreground, from the thin veiling of liquid colour in the underlayers to the spattering of snow-like white paint, to the complex, painterly 'fossilisation' of bark on the trees, to the thick palette knife application of snow-filled branches in the foreground, the painting is a tour de force of contemporary painting. It uses abstract techniques and processes to build an image which exists in the space between photographic reality and vivid memory. It is a mesmeric composition that fluctuates from romantic to elegiac, from tranquil to oneiric, resonating like a nostalgia-tinged reminiscence or a lucid dream.
In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, Doig invokes a wealth of art historical and popular cultural reference: Jackson Pollock's kinetic eddies of 'all-over painting' with Zeidler and his continental colleague, Le Corbusier's Modernist architecture, Paul Cézanne's planes of vivid colour with glossy magazine adverts, Pierre Bonnard's dreamlike imaginary with Doig's childhood memories of Canada, Edvard Munch's expressive visions, the landscapes of Canadian Group of Seven artist, LeMoine Fitzgerald and the snow-filled visions of Pieter Bruegel with the lesser known David Milne. The deeply erudite artist navigates these sources with seamless dexterity, creating a beguiling scene that is spectacularly unique and powerfully his own.
Painted in 1991, The Architect's Home in the Ravine was carried out the same year that he first encountered with his own eyes Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Briey-en-Forêt. Built by the master architect and opened to fanfare in 1961, the building was later abandoned in 1973; a victim to changing aesthetic and economic fortunes. Vividly recounting his first encounter with the building Doig explained, 'I can remember the terror of the pitch black, with the densest trees around. When you do finally see the light of a house it's incredibly welcoming' (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, 'Incidents' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 37). Involved with a group of artists and architects devotedly restoring its painted façade, Doig began a complex emotional relationship with the building that was to become the inspiration for his series of Concrete Cabins. In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, importantly prefiguring this group of paintings, he recreates the clean geometry of Zeidler's iconic building borrowing Le Corbusier's iconic panels of colour. Rendered in bright primaries: yellow, red and blue, the fascia of the silent, empty house glows vibrantly through the forest, its royal purple roof breaking through the veil of snow and vertiginous redwood tree trunks. The Architect's Home in the Ravine was created shortly after Doig's graduation from the Chelsea College of Art and Design when he was awarded the prestigious Whitechapel Artist Prize culminating in a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1991. The prospect of such a major institutional show at such a formative stage in his career spurred an intense period of creativity in which Doig produced a small number of large format canvases, which he now sees as the thematic matrix for his subsequent oeuvre. Included in the Whitechapel exhibition were major works including Swamped (1990), Iron Hill (1991) and The Architect's Home in the Ravine. This pantheon of great paintings that Doig realised during the early 1990s, are now widely considered the best of his career. Many of the works from this period are now housed within international museum collections including: The House that Jacques Built (1992), Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Boiler House (1994), promised to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Ski Jacket (1994), Tate Modern, London.
THE LANDSCAPE EMBODIED IN THE BRUSH STROKE
What sets Peter Doig apart from any other painter in history is his ability to embody landscape in the brush stroke. Each painting from this period of the early 1990s offers a masterful rendering and layering of paint, which can be read both as abstraction and as a celebration of the physical properties of nature. In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, Doig has embraced contingency, rendering his composition with thick, tactile, impasto paint. As he once explained, 'I often find that I am unable to really paint unless I have a lot of paint out in open containers on my studio table and floor. This is part of the decision process for me - as well as chance' (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, 'Incidents' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 26). In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, the surface is riddled with small, button-like blobs of oil paint protruding from the surface of the canvas, simulating the qualities of the ice and snow filled landscape. For Doig, the motif of snow has a double function, operating not only as a nostalgic emblem, but also as a complex visual tool. His snowy arabesques are superimposed over the landscape, creating a negative space in and around them. The viewer is forced to peer into this negative space, through the painterly smoke screen to the composition below. In this respect, Doig has often highlighted his affinity with the work of Pieter Breugel in paintings such as The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1567). As he once affirmed, 'when you look at [Breugel's painting] the snow is almost all the same size, it's not perspectival, it's the notion of the 'idea' of snow, which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it' (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, 'Incidents' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 30).
Random bursts of texture create a visually arresting counterpoint to the smooth, almost saturated aquamarine-green that makes up the surrounding forest. Running in thick ribbons from the top of the painting, Doig has painted a wealth of trees, their vertiginous redwood trunks standing barren in the frozen landscape. For every tree there shoots up another, creating an impenetrable horizon to obscure the sky. Eddies of paint applied with the edge of a palette knife circulate the landscape, recalling the kinetic action painting of Jackson Pollock. The effect is almost hallucinogenic, the artist's hand and the viewer's eye chasing across the surface of the canvas. Doig's practice is spectacularly skilled, the artist reversing ground-foreground conventions. In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, he has built up the vertical striations of paint that suggest the dense woodland, only to develop the sleek geometries of the house between these interstices. Painted the following year, Pond Life (1992) can be understood as the shimmering, ice-laden counterpart to Doig's The Architect's Home in the Ravine. Rendered in cool blue, ice tones, Pond Life depicts a solitary house overlooking the glassy surface of a frozen pond. Just as the artist used his palette knife to drag paint into the fronds of his lustrous green pine trees, so he has intimated the grassy water banks in Pond Life. Where trails of white paint circulate the foreground of his earlier painting, Doig replicates the hypnotic rhythm in the frozen surface of the pond, suggesting the slim grooves of skates carved into the ice. Whilst snow-laden branches impede the view of The Architect's Home in the Ravine, inviting the eye to search the mysterious ground beyond, in Pond Life we are bewitched by the frozen water's double vision. As Doig has recounted 'the mirroring opened up another world. It went from being something like a recognizable reality to something more magical' (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt (ed.), 'A Suitable Distance', Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 14). In both of these important paintings, the artist's landscapes evoke dreamlike associations, conjuring up his native Canada in the depths of winter. As Doig has described, 'the surface is an abstraction of the memory of being in a certain frame of mind under certain weather conditions and in certain places (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 14).
It was at the Chelsea School of Art, after Doig's return from Canada in 1989 that he really began to experiment with the properties of paint and its ability to resonate with the tones and textures of the natural landscape. As Adrian Searle has suggested, 'what [he] discovered in this very short period of time was that paint is like mud and can be drawn out into trails and strokes like dangling vines, tendrils or branches. It can make a clean white shape, like a canoe or a broken inchoate mess of spatters' (A. Searle, 'A Kind of Blankness', A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52). In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, these qualities are brought together to brilliant effect, Doig devoting himself to the shapes, colours and surfaces of the frozen woodland. This approach to working with paint distinguishes Doig from the rest of his peers, who were for the most part producing cool, conceptual works at the time. As Doig himself recalls, 'in the late 1980s and early 1990s most art had a clean, contemporary, slick look... I purposefully made works that were handmade and homely looking... I didn't want the surfaces to be beautiful but slightly repellent on close inspection' (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, 'Incidents' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 22).
FROM FIGURATION TO ABSTRACTION: FROM PIERRE BONNARD TO GERHARD RICHTER
In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, Doig eschews linear perspective and repoussoir, instead giving the viewer freedom to roam across the surface. The focal point of the painting appears in constant flux, ever shifting 'like the vagaries of memory' (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, 'Incidents' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 26). Doig is a deeply erudite artist, well versed in the practices of his modern predecessors including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper amongst others. Certainly, elements of these eclectic forbears can be traced in The Architect's Home in the Ravine, not only in the rich panoply of colour used, but in formal, spatial and ideological terms. As Doig has elaborated, he holds a particular admiration for Bonnard whom he suggests, '[captures] the space that is behind the eyes. It's as if you were lying in bed trying hard to remember what something looked like. And Bonnard managed to paint that strange state. It is not a photographic space at all. It is a memory space, but one which is based on reality' (P. Doig, interview with H.U. Obrist in A. Searle et al. (ed.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 142).
This notion of transience, the space between reality and the imaginary, is something that Doig consistently evokes in his work. In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, the painting is loosely based upon Le Corbusier's architectural projects, however the images of these places have undergone numerous shifts in the process of translation to canvas. The finished painting no longer offers a recognisable reality, instead we turn towards a mystical, dream-like imaginary. In certain respects, this act of interpretation recalls the approach of Gerhard Richter whose own understanding of representation and reality balances on the knife's edge between figuration and abstraction. In Roberta Smith's review of Doig's first solo exhibition in New York, she concluded that his paintings 'fuse the strands of Mr Richter's split career - his photo-realist works and the frozen gestures of his abstraction - into single works' (R. Smith, 'Art in Review', in The New York Times, 30 September 1994,http://www. nytimes.com [14/01/13]).
THE HOUSE THAT LE CORBUSIER BUILT
It was in 1991 that Doig first encountered Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, the architect's utopian solution for war-torn France, looking to provide communal living for inhabitants to shop, play, live, and come together in a 'vertical garden city'. Seeing the empty, now redundant vestige of the architect's noble project had a profound impact on Doig. As the artist has recounted: 'visiting the building in Briey, seeing the way it was situated there in the forest reminded me of much more modest buildings I had painted, but I ended up painting it as well, probably in quite a different way than I had painted other structures, because the setting is grimmer...Whereas other buildings had represented a family or maybe a person somehow, this building seemed to represent thousands of people. When I went to see the Le Corbusier building for the first time, I never dreamed that I would end up painting it. I went for walk in the woods on one visit, and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew. I had no desire to paint it on its own, but seeing it through the trees, that is when I found it striking' (P. Doig, quoted in 'Kitty Scott in conversation with Peter Doig', Adrian Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, New York 2007, p. 16). In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, we see the signature colour panels of Le Corbusier's communal building adorn the fascia of Zeidler's lonely house surrounded by trees. Doig artfully weaves the buildings into his natural landscape scene, paying fastidious care and attention to perspective and geometry, only to overwrite it with eddies of snow and hieratic trees. As the artist has explained, 'instead of painting the façade of a building and then shrouding it in trees I would pick the architecture through the foliage, so that the picture would push itself up to your eye. I thought that was a much more real way of looking at things, because that is the way the eye looks: you are constantly looking through the things, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time' (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt (ed.), 'A Suitable Distance', Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London 2008, p. 13).
This was a practice frequently employed by Paul Cézanne who would often allow building and nature to intermarry in his compositions. As Judith Nesbitt has noted, Cézanne colours over the other, helter skelter, regardless of the actual position of the represented objects, leaving the spatial order ambiguous. Doig adopted a similar technique, concerned with representing the process of perception and its feel, rather than with illustrating reality. Accordingly, he distinguished his conscious, functional memory - a limited store of pictorial knowledge - from an open and speculative 'idea of memory' (J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London 2008, p. 38). For Doig, buildings of different scales, agendas and architectural ambitions have always been a source of interest and imagination. As the artist has explained, 'I started with very modest homes, like cabins. So I started by painting a cabin, and then I moved up the line. I became more interested in what buildings represent. How in a very modest structure, did someone decide to place the windows? Often they seemed to be anthropomorphised' (P. Doig, quoted in 'Kitty Scott in conversation with Peter Doig', Adrian Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, New York 2007, p. 16).
For Doig, the building is not only a site where people can work and live, but is also a substitute for the figure itself, representing the embodiment of a person's tastes, habits and dispositions. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that he became fascinated by the modern design of Zeidler and the Brutalist architecture of Le Corbusier, in particular his now abandoned Unité d'Habitation in Briey-en-Forêt.
For Doig, recollections have always been rich sources of inspiration. As he has explained, in works such as The Architect's Home in the Ravine 'I was trying to come to terms with the Canadian part of my life. I left Canada when I was nineteen. I really wanted to get away. I felt bored. London seemed to be where the things I was interested in were coming from. Going back to Canada when I was a little bit older, I realised how much I had absorbed there. It now felt important. For the most part I tried to avoid becoming involved in nostalgia, and that's why a lot of the imagery I used for these paintings were things that reminded me of my experience rather than things that were directly from my experience' (P. Doig, interview with K. Scott in A. Searle et al., Peter Doig, London
Throughout his career, Doig's work has operated through a process of displacement, chronicling his own experiences of travel and relocation. As Adrian Searle once commented, 'journey's real and metaphorical, places of arrival and departure, no-man's lands between waking and sleeping, and the slippage between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary, are the territories of Doig's art' (A. Searle, 'A Kind of Blankness' in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52). In The Architect's Home in the Ravine, the familiar becomes estranged and the boundaries between what is real, imagined and remembered become blurred. 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. As the artist himself noted, in the early 1990s 'I'd been painting landscape - or an idea of landscape - in London, via my experiences in Canada it was never really that kind of real experience; it was like filtering through things [it] was always a kind of escape to make these paintings in the studio, because what was outside the door was so different really. The work became a different world that was the excitement in a way: trying to find this other place in my studio, in my urban studio, in my head' (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, 'A Suitable Distance' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 18).