The Courtauld Gallery, London
Until May 29
Peter Doig never tries to create real spaces, only painted spaces, we learn at the beginning of the Courtauld’s exhibition of some of his most recent work, including paintings created since his move from Trinidad to London in 2021.
The same could be said of the greats that have gone before, including the impressionists and post-impressionists hanging in rooms adjacent to the Doig exhibition who are among his more immediate influences.
That they are great is because, if the time and the place are vague, the evocation of mood is highly specific, complex and credible if not literally real.
In Doig’s edgy world, light and, particularly shade, have a crucial role in exploring the strangeness of what it is to be human.
“Night Studio” is what you could interpret as a self-deprecating evocation of Doig’s struggles in the small hours to capture on canvas the creative process. With a shadow behind him and streaks of paint on his clothes, it’s as if he must unravel before he can complete a work.
“Painting on an Island” is another portrayal of nocturnal creativity, but this time, it is moonlit and next to the sea. The romance is marred by the white stone wall that tells us we are on the prison island of Carrera and the inmate artist, whose classical profile recalls ancient traditions of artistry and captivity, is trapped.
Bathing in all kinds of light has long been explored by artists, including Cezanne and the impressionists.
While Doig and fellow painters work through the night, his phosphorescent “Night Bathers” bask in the light of a moon reflected in the sea. Doig is not overtly political, but the unsettling inversion of the thoughtless beach holiday has political resonance in our climate-aware times.
“Night Bathers” was finished in 2019 before Doig’s return to London. Its spooky coldness is almost but not quite the opposite of the hot shades of “Alice at Boscoe’s”, painted over nearly a decade and finished just in time for this exhibition.
Alice is Doig’s daughter and Boscoe’s refers to Boscoe Holder, a leading Trinidad contemporary painter and musician, who owned the property, where Alice is swinging in a hammock. The long-legged, open-eyed Alice – neither day-dreaming, nor asleep, just suspended in a moment – is a shimmering, slightly shadowy presence. It’s as if Doig is making the point this is a memory being made and this heady, youthful Trinidad day was slipping into the past as soon as it had begun.
His son makes a vivid appearance, eating a breakfast of yellow eggs that highlight his blond hair, on the towpath of “Canal”, painted in London in 2023. This time, the more shadowy presence is in the background steering a red and green barge through bottle-green waters. The Chrismassy colours and hints of snow strike up a dialogue with the tropical oranges and greens of “Alice at Boscoe’s”.
“Music Shop” takes us back to Trinidad with its sun-bleached walls and shop windows that look straight out to a brilliant blue sea, while what should be the contents of the shop – drum kits, a guitar, a tambourine – are painted on the façade. At the entrance is the late musician and friend of Doig’s Winston Bailey, who in life was nicknamed Shadow and now is a shade with a deathly skeleton on the back of his black coat, like a heavy minor chord crashing into the upbeat frame.
In another wild mood and colour swing, “Alpinist”, the Courtauld’s poster image for the exhibition, features a huddled harlequin on a freezing, vertiginous ridge, with the Matterhorn in the background. His feet blur into waves of ice, his skis are strapped to his back in a giant wooden cross, suggesting calvary. If we did not envy the night bathers, we really have no wish to be this hapless harlequin. Doig’s gift is to convince us that, however odd at first sight, everyone at some point in their lives is this lonely figure at a perilous pass, desperately trying to find a way to move on.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.