‘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
‘Doig paints certain architectural structures – cabins, houses, and apartment buildings rather than churches – and deliberately puts them in places like the snow and the woods, in order that we remember that all of our (social) positions remain relative, even when isolated. So we see for example, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, 1991, sliced to ribbons by an interstitial network of tree branches; or Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Concrete Cabin 1991/2, and Concrete Cabin III presented as an abandoned modernist society retreating into the woods’ – T. R. Myers
‘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
‘[Bonnard 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
‘[His buildings] are also objects, with discernable structure, rectilinear planes, windows, doors, roofs that the artist describes with fastidious care and attention to perspective and geometry. They provide structure and volume, and as much as anything else are a foil to the restless and agitated spaces in which they are set’ – A. Searle
‘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
‘Journeys 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
An epic masterpiece of Peter Doig’s early oeuvre, infused with a magical atmosphere and executed with 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 across a delicately-woven surface tapestry, 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 building lies silently before a glassy, ice-covered pool. Closely covered with verdant, evergreen trees, it captures the modernist home of the Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler, situated 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, with only glimpses of life visible through the trees. Working from photos he had taken of Zeidler's house in the ravine, Doig picked out the architecture through the branches, conjuring a new image of the place brimming with oneiric wonder. A painterly meditation on the very mechanics of vision itself, The Architect's Home in the Ravine shifts in and out of focus before our eyes, oscillating between figuration and abstraction as we peer into its textural depths. Combining a vast array of painterly techniques, Doig painstakingly constructs a hypnotically-layered surface: from the thin veiling of liquid colour on the base of the canvas, to the spattering of snow-like white paint, to the thick ‘fossilisation’ of bark on the trees, to the sweeping use of the palette knife to suggest frosted branches. A tour de force of contemporary painting, the work deploys abstract techniques and processes to build an image that exists in the inarticulate space between reality, memory and imagination. Both romantic and elegiac, it resonates with the mesmeric poignancy of a nostalgic reminiscence or a lucid dream.
In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, Doig fuses together a wealth of art historical and popular cultural references: Jackson Pollock’s kinetic eddies of ‘all-over painting’ with the modernist architecture of Zeidler and his continental colleague Le Corbusier; 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 with the landscapes of Canadian Group of Seven artist LeMoine Fitzgerald, and the snow-filled visions of Pieter Bruegel with the work of 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 Doig first encountered Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Briey-en-Forêt. Built in 1961 as a utopian solution to post-War living, Le Corbusier’s modernist dream was abandoned in 1973; a victim of changing aesthetic and economic fortunes. Vividly recounting his first sighting of 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 Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 37). Part of a group of artists and architects devoted to 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. Prefiguring this important group of paintings, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine recreates the clean geometry of Zeidler’s iconic building whilst deliberately borrowing Le Corbusier’s iconic panels of colour. Rendered in bright primaries tones of 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. There, he was awarded the prestigious Whitechapel Artist Prize, leading to a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1991 in which the present work was included. The prospect of such a major institutional show at such a formative stage in his career sparked an intense period of creativity and, in the lead up to the exhibition, Doig produced a small number of large format canvases that represent the touchstone of his subsequent oeuvre. Included in the Whitechapel exhibition alongside The Architect’s Home in the Ravine were major works such as Swamped (1990) and Iron Hill (1991). Now recognised as some of the best in his career, many of the paintings produced during these critical early years are 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, London).
THE LANDSCAPE EMBODIED IN A BRUSHSTROKE
Doig’s oeuvre is distinguished by his masterful ability to capture the nuances of a landscape through pigment and brushwork alone. Whilst most of his peers at Chelsea were largely engrossed in conceptual projects, Doig rigorously explored paint’s ability to recreate the sensation of being in nature. 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 … or a broken inchoate mess of spatters’ (A. Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’, A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52). As such, Doig’s works of the early 1990s are defined by abstract conglomerations of strokes, daubs and rivulets that almost become natural phenomena in their own right. 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 effect of ice and snow upon the landscape. For Doig, the motif of snow has a double function, operating not only as a nostalgic emblem of his native Canada, but also as a complex visual tool. His frosted arabesques are superimposed upon their surroundings, creating chasms of negative space between them. The viewer is forced to peer into this matrix, through the painterly smoke screen to the composition beneath. In this respect, Doig has highlighted his affinity with the work of Pieter Breugel, claiming ‘when you look at [Breugel’s painting] the snow is almost all the same size, it’s not perspectival ... It becomes like a screen, making you look through it’ (P. Doig, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 30).
Across the breadth of the composition, Doig’s brushwork amplifies the sense of ‘looking through’ through a further variety of means. 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, a battalion of soaring tree trunks stands barren in the frozen landscape. For every tree there shoots up another, creating a dense, impenetrable horizon that obscures the sky. Rills of paint applied with the edge of a palette knife circulate the landscape, creating a hallucinogenic trail that skilfully inverts the relationship between foreground and background. At the same time, Doig’s vertical striations of paint are intercepted by the sleek geometries of the house that emerge – broken and refracted – from the depths of the thicket. These techniques would go on to inform Doig’s 1992 masterpiece Pond Life: a further Canadian daydream, depicting a solitary house overlooking a frozen pool. Here, the hypnotic effect previously created by interwoven vines and tendrils is transferred to the water itself, producing a disorientating double vision. Comparing the two paintings, we are suddenly prompted to question whether The Architect’s Home in the Ravine is in fact not an aerial view but a waterlogged reflection, shattered by cracked ice within the clouded depths of the artist’s imagination. Doig has recounted how ‘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, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 14).
BONNARD, CÉZANNE AND RICHTER: FROM FIGURATION TO ABSTRACTION
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 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. Certainly, elements of these eclectic forebears can be traced in The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, not only in Doig’s rich panoply of colour used, but also in the work’s formal, spatial and ideological properties. 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 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 the real and the imaginary – is something that Doig consistently confronts in his work. The source images for the present work have undergone numerous shifts in the process of translation to canvas, to the extent that the finished painting no longer offers a recognisable reality. In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, Doig combines this elusive effect with a dramatic reconstruction of pictorial space, demonstrating the influence of Cézanne upon his practice. Cézanne would often allow building and nature to intermarry in his compositions, overlapping their colours and geometries regardless of their actual spatial positioning. Doig adopts a similar technique, creating a multi-perspectival layering that simulates the foggy subconscious wanderings of memory. As figuration dissolves into abstraction, and reality slips from our grasp, Doig also evokes the legacy of Gerhard Richter, whose own understanding of representation balances on the knife-edge between these two perceptual states. As Roberta Smith concluded in her review of Doig’s first solo exhibition in New York, 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).
NATURE, ARCHITECTURE AND MEMORY
The influence of Doig’s encounter with Le Corbusier’s abandoned Unité d’Habitation is palpable in The Architect’s Home in the Ravine. The artist was deeply moved by the sight of utopian promise laid to ruin and overrun by nature. ‘I went for walk in the woods on one visit, and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew’, he recounts. ‘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 conversation with K. Scott, in Adrian Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, New York 2007, p. 16). In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, the atmospheric allure of the building Briey-En-Forêt is filtered through a distinctly Canadian memory. The signature colour panels of Le Corbusier’s communal building adorn the exterior of Zeidler’s lonely house, artificially transplanted through the artist’s imagination. Doig artfully weaves the building into its natural surroundings, paying fastidious 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, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 13). As Briey and Rosedale merge, the building takes on an almost anthropomorphic quality, imbued with a near-figural presence as it looms through the trees.
Deeply rooted in personal recollections, Doig’s work has always operated through a process of displacement, chronicling his own experiences of relocation between Trinidad, Canada and London. For him, the act of painting is always retrospective, referring to moments and places suspended in the past. In his works of the early 1990s, he explains, ‘I was trying to come to terms with the Canadian part of my life. I left Canada when I was nineteen ... Going back [there] 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 (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 10). In the present work, the familiar becomes estranged, infused with a lingering sense of the uncanny. Veiled with uncertainty, the home in the ravine becomes unheimlich: a spectral figment of the imagination, posing as reality. As the artist has noted, ‘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 Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 18). In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, we are invited to glimpse the complex terrain of Doig’s psyche, and to follow the dreamlike wanderings of his mind’s eye.