At the Courtauld, Peter Doig’s Paintings Are a Tribute to Trinidad
Peter Doig, installation view of “The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Peter Doig” at the Courtauld Gallery, 2023. Photo by Fergus Carmichael. Courtesy of the Courtauld Gallery.
For an artist whose life has been filled with movement—he has lived in Scotland, Trinidad, Canada, and London—Peter Doig’s paintings are remarkably still. From a canoe resting on water, to two elaborately costumed figures standing underneath a starry sky, his works are quiet and dreamlike.
At the Courtauld Gallery in London, a new exhibition, open through May 29th, captures a new transition within Doig’s work: the artist’s return to London from Trinidad after more than 20 years living on the island. It includes paintings Doig has developed across his time in these two locations, while downstairs are etchings that respond to the work of his friend, the late poet Derek Walcott. The exhibition is an intimate portrait of an artist who uses image as dialogue—between past and present; near and far away; painting and everything else.
Peter Doig, Untitled (Derek), 2017. © Peter Doig. Courtesy of the artist and the Courtauld Gallery.
Peter Doig, Painting on an Island (Carrera), 2019. © Peter Doig. Courtesy of the artist and Pinault Collection.
Born in Edinburgh in 1959, Peter Doig spent his formative years in Trinidad and Canada before moving to London to study at the age of 20. His breakthrough paintings, such as The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), are densely detailed, their mystery partly derived from the distance between subject and viewer. Returning to Trinidad in the early 2000s, his compositions became more open, with surrealistic figures and symbols front and center, offering themselves up to interpretation. Several works at the Courtauld are later examples of that approach: In the first room, a woman drenched in blueish light stares out from the beachy foreground in Night Bathers (2011–19), while in Painting on an Island (Carrera) (2019), we see a seated man close-up in profile, as he paints under a half moon, his hair a thick knot of paint.
This directness allows Doig to express—loud and clear—his deep love for Trinidadian culture. In interviews, he speaks of himself as an outsider there, as a white, U.K.-born artist in a former British colony. His work, he says, should question his presence there. This show, however, emphasizes how thoroughly he has immersed himself in the local art scene, its characters, and its history.
Peter Doig, Night Bathers, 2011–19. © Peter Doig. Courtesy of the artist and the Courtauld Gallery.
For Painting on an Island (Carrera), for example, Doig uses a nearby prison island as a setting, where Doig helped inmates organize an annual exhibition of their work. The prints inspired by Walcott (who was born in nearby Saint Lucia but spent many years in Trinidad) are beautiful etchings of shadowy figures and landscapes, placed, at the Courtauld, next to a tender painting of Walcott at an easel. In Alice at Boscoe’s (2014–23), meanwhile, Doig’s daughter appears in front of a house once owned by the Trinidadian painter Boscoe Holder. Alice is painted as a translucent figure against a vivid backdrop of reds, blacks, oranges and greens—a character from one artist’s life fading into the world of another.
Perhaps the most potent theme connecting Doig’s new work and Trinidad is music, which courses through the works. A pair of calypso players are portrayed against a hazy landscape, with a woman—Doig’s wife, Parinaz Mogadassi—sitting on a donkey beside them. Elsewhere, a group of soca musicians drift by on a boat, so spectral they could almost disappear. In Music Shop (2019–23), the late, prominent Trinidadian singer Shadow stands outside a music store, peering back at the viewer with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Through the store windows are views of Trinidad: for Doig, it suggests, this island is synonymous with music.
Peter Doig, installation view, from left to right, of House of Music (Soca Boat), 2019–23; and Music Shop, 2019–23, in “The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Peter Doig” at the Courtauld Gallery, 2023. Photo by Fergus Carmichael. Courtesy of the Courtauld Gallery.
Of course, this is Peter Doig, who is known for referencing other media in his work, and so there is much more at play. The titles of a number of works echo the name of STUDIOFILMCLUB, the regular film night he hosted in his studio. Meanwhile, the moody atmosphere of Edvard Munch and the fervent color fields of Henri Matisse seem to pop up time and time again. Sometimes Doig is a little close to these art historical influences, but these works are intelligent enough to operate on their own terms, too. Doig seems to know this: In Night Studio (Studiofilm and Racquet Club) (2015), all thin veils of paint and illusionary planes, he stands in front of his painting Stag (2002–05)—a painter proud of the layers in his work.
Working in London again, Doig has continued to stir memory and inspiration to mesmeric effect. Canal (2023), the first London subject the artist has painted since returning, is based on a birthday card he made for his son, who is depicted sitting at a table beside Regent’s Canal. The scene is incongruous—like so many of Doig’s works, it is set at night, yet the child is eating breakfast. To the left, a tree glistens with wintry light against a bridge rich with red, while a wash of lush green and orange foliage peeks in from the opposite side. It is a real place made magic, gesturing to the odd feeling of being back.
Peter Doig, Alpinist, 2019–22. © Peter Doig. Courtesy of the artist and the Courtauld Gallery.
Peter Doig, Night Studio (STUDIOFILM & RACQUET CLUB), 2015. © Peter Doig. Courtesy of the artist and the Courtauld Gallery.
Perhaps the most memorable work on show is Alpinist (2019–22), a monumental picture of a skier that is complex, dazzling, and difficult to turn away from. The figure, dressed in the colorful clothes of a harlequin—a motif used by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne—is caught wandering across a snowy mountain, a Matterhorn rising up behind him, a sprawling forest far below. Here is Doig portraying himself, perhaps, on the move again, in his own peculiar way. If so, here we see an artist who is restless, but not afraid to savor the moment: one who makes art to slow down and take it all in, before heading over the summit to discover what is on the other side.