A pea green fishing boat drifts mysteriously on a moonlit sea. Along its length stand ghostly figures looking out to port, many carrying instruments highlighted in warm, golden tones. Beneath the hull, the water is constellated with phosphorescence; a bloom of pale lemon illuminates the distant horizon under a lavender sky. House of Music (Soca Boat), 2019-2023, is one of 12 paintings from The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Peter Doig now showing at The Courtauld. Inspired by a photograph of fishermen holding aloft their catch, Doig named the work after a song, ‘Dat Soca Boat’ (1979) by Shadow (1941-2018), the legendary soca musician who shaped a modern form of calypso. Like many of Doig’s watery landscapes, the painting is composed of reflective bands of colour; one has the sense that he paints these melodic striations to a hidden score. “I like the idea,” Doig has said previously, “that maybe these sections which had opened up to reveal a strip of existence could just as easily close down again.” Reading the painting is like listening to a song, we are briefly immersed in something that keeps its own time.
“The full moon is so fierce that I can count the
coconuts’ cross-hatched shade on bungalows,
their white walls raging with insomnia.
The stars leak drop by drop on the tin plates
of the sea almonds, and the jeering clouds
are luminously rumpled as the sheets…”
– Europa (1981), Derek Walcott
The first exhibition by a contemporary artists to take place since The Courtauld reopened in November 2021, Doig is showing paintings in the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries alongside a series of prints, in the Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, made in response to the poetry of his late friend and collaborator, Derek Walcott (1930-2018). The artist’s first institutional show in the UK in over a decade, it coincides with his return to London, after 21 years living in Trinidad. Back on this island, Doig’s new studio has become the crucible for developing unfinished paintings begun elsewhere – New York, Port of Spain, the Alps – whilst reflecting on his new environment in a fresh cycle of works. These include London’s canals, and retro Alpine scenes, expanding his fascination with water as a site of transition and a carrier of light, whilst revealing a mysterious connection to music, and synergy with that unquantifiable, but effortlessly cool X factor.
On the eve of this shows opening, as the last scintillas of paint were drying on works only just installed, Harry Styles stepped out at the Grammy’s in a multicoloured diamond pattern Harlequin costume almost identical to that worn by the central figure in Doig’s hero painting for this exhibition: Alpinist, (2019-2022). Widely disseminated, this image was used for exhibition posters across the capital and on social media; Doig invited speculation on the coincidence with a digital riff of the painting embedded with a photograph of Styles, eyes glinting over a wide smile. With one image, a whole new generation tuned into Doig’s work, many of whom will make their own journey to see the original painting. Elegantly capturing the strange journey (and economic imperative) of the performing creative reaching the lonely summit of success, this masterwork also keys us into the artist’s love for music and sympathy for the solitary, oft overlooked romantic.
Doig began his journey as a figurative painter at the height of the YBA shock-of-the-new era. After finishing his BA at St Martin’s School of Art, he moved to Canada, where the landscape is vast and the seasons brutal. It was there that his lifelong commitment to the slow, analogue medium of paint began – just as the art world had lost faith in its power. With its re-emergence in the 21st century as a key art form (and asset), he is now considered a leading light of his generation. His large-scale dreamscapes hover exquisitely between actual places and imaginative realms, bathed in moonlight and glowing with nostalgia. Many of these describe a physical threshold, between land and sea, mountain and sky, inside and out; often there is a lone figure, sometimes in a boat or canoe. They portray a kind of slippage – between things, between minds and between the senses – and we are transported, as if in a canoe (his most emblematic, recurring motif) that carries us over his main subject: water.
If music is about listening, one might say that painting is about the nature of looking. Much has been written about reflective surfaces in art, for how they offers up a secondary version of reality (Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère) and act as a metaphor to the act of painting. But to read Doig’s work thus would be one dimensional. “Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it … It’s about the idea of getting absorbed into them, so you get physically lost.” (Peter Doig in Exhibition Catalogue, Berlin, Contemporary Fine Arts; London, Victoria Miro Gallery, Peter Doig: Blotter, 1995, p. 10). Like his iconic White Canoe, (1991), in House of Music the water occupies three quarters of the pictorial surface, but here it is rendered with an opacity, like a semi-precious stone in layers of jade, celadon and sage. Over and over again in this show, we see large portions of the canvas dedicated to surfaces that reflect but also hide what is beneath – snow covered mountains, the sea, the Grand Union Canal. Just as water holds memory, Doig’s painterly mind absorbs sensations – seen, felt, heard – which liquify into the unconscious and later emerge in the act of painting (at night, to music).
The Courtauld exhibition amplifies these undercurrents, and reminds us how each painting is part of an ongoing conversation with his earlier or historical works and cultural influences (one has to walk through its iconic Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection to reach Doig’s show). In the first room, a self portrait looms large: Night Studio (Studiofilm & Racquet Club), 2015. Depicting the artist in his Trinidad studio, his face is a shocking obliteration of paint, behind which we perceive the eerie outline of another face. Steadying himself with his right hand, he holds up his left, cast in shadow. The artist stands on bold red floor (Matisse, Red Studio?), its matt surface at odds with the reflective ground in his other works.“This painting gives a sense of how Peter Doig’s works feed into one another, the process of painting undertaken as continuous journey,” says Barnaby Wright, Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery. “The title refers to the fact that Doig often paints at night… three months before this show, he moved his bed into the studio. Like in Trinidad, where his studio was the site of weekly public film screenings, in London his studio functions as a cross cultural hub.” It is a noisy, imposing work; you can feel the agony.
Just as Doig is adept at moving figures between works, this show draws us along the strange river of unconscious associations. His paintings rise up like a wave, briefly offering a view inside what might otherwise be obscured. Doig paints what the critic Christopher P Jones calls “a murky narrative rooted in ambivalence. Tropes — canoes, solitary figures on glowing shorelines, sunbathers — are carried over between paintings, so that recurring figures have the potential to undo one another’s meaning — cousins in paint fostering different motives.”
With each new work, we find narrative elements that may – or may not – have been allowed to surface. To emphasise this, the show’s curator places Night Bathers (2019) opposite Night Studio. By contrast to the scummy face and louche outline of an artist leaning against his studio wall, this goddess – clad in a scalloped bathing costume – lies with abandon under a full moon on an empty beach, the sand illuminated to lunar-white (The Birth of Venus, Boticelli?). We are reminded of an earlier work, Bather (Night Wave), 2019, where a ghostly white swimmer stands on an acid-orange beach. The sea is a frothy whiteness, a sickle moon hangs in the night sky. In the background, a woman lies bathed moonlight, it is the same figure we see expand into Night Bathers, 2019.
As we perceive, our mind envelops each sensation with previous, so they blur and meld. A colour might evoke a sound which reminds you of a night spent on a distant island. I stare, I lose focus – my eyes open and close. Whilst allegories are at work here, the exact meaning is enigmatic – it is stored in the paint. You can feel it, but you cannot fully see it. “Much of Doig’s ambiguity is achieved through the irregular and unregulated painted surface,” says Jones. “The paint is thinned so that surface and tone degrade into one another like a collapsing wave. Sometimes you can see erased figures beneath the paint, a change of mind that the artist has done little to disguise.”
I think of Boticelli’s Aphrodite, a myth rising from the sea foam of gods, and then I remember the closing lines of Walcott’s poem Europa ‘…I feel my mind/ whiten to moonlight, altering that form/ which daylight unambiguously designed,/ from a tree to a girl’s body bent in foam…’ You cannot stare at the sun – it would bleach your eyes out. But the moon is a gloriously soft, snowy orb, gentle on the retina, and kind to the skin. You can stay up all night and watch it cast everything in a silvery sheen, just as you can spend all day looking at a painting of the moon reflected in the water, which rises up to greet the light with a phosphorescence. This show is a scattering of stars which will slip into your dreams and change the way you perceive. It will play on your mind, just like Styles Grammy winning song that somehow matches Doigs work.
Words Nico Kos Earle © Artlyst 2023 Top Photo: Peter Doig The Morgan Stanley Exhibition The Courtauld. Photo © Fergus Carmichael, 2023
Peter Doig – The Morgan Stanley Exhibition – 10 Feb – 29 May 2023 Courtauld Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries London
“In this world, it’s just us
You know it’s not the same as it was
In this world, it’s just us
You know it’s not the same as it was
As it was, as it was
You know its not the same.”
Songwriters – Harry Styles, Thomas Hull and Tyler Johnson