Peter Doig's ‘Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)’
‘Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)’, 2004

A retraction. Peter Doig’s canvases are so unabashedly, flamboyantly beautiful that when, in 2008, he filled Tate Britain with paintings of blotchy Canadian snowstorms and lone canoeists reflected in glimmering waters, I dismissed his entire oeuvre as decorative, lightweight and idea-free.

This was a mistake and unfair. No Foreign Lands, Doig’s new show at the Scottish National Gallery, proves that his exploration of visual delight is a queasier, more elusive, historically fraught affair than it at first seemed. This becomes apparent because Edinburgh concentrates entirely on work from the past decade, when Doig took a terrific gamble: he moved from London to Trinidad, where, after being born in Edinburgh, he had spent his early childhood before his family relocated to Canada.

Predictably, the tropical landscape transformed his palette, introducing yet more gorgeous hues and chromatic harmonies – sugar-pink palm trees, vibrant yellow ground, transparent emerald-turquoise water in “Walking Figure by the Pool”; pulsating rose/green/black contrasts around a single vanishing figure in “August in February” – and spurred him on to fresh motifs: jungles instead of forests, ping-pong players in shorts instead of skiers in puffa jackets.

But since Doig paints from photographs and recollections, never from life, that is only half the point. What he really dared in Trinidad was to confront, in a natural world of tropical extremes, the question that had only simmered in his Canadian works: what can a painter trying for an unbroken lineage with the formal assonance, sensual colour and expressiveness of modernism dare to paint in the 21st century? And can that be achieved without kitsch, nostalgia or anachronism?

Doig’s early paintings were strongly indebted to second-generation Canadian modernists Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, but in Trinidad he upped the stakes. Among his recent monumental canvases, splendidly displayed in the Scottish Royal Academy, memories of Gauguin, Matisse and Bonnard instantly clamour. In “Paragon” and “Cricket Painting (Para­grand)”, Gauguin-like red and blue pools of paint wash over silhouettes of an alert, waiting batsman, a frenzied bowler and a laconic fielder, fringed by lush, over-large leaves. The same languid eroticism and limpid colour, evoking Gauguin’s Tahiti, animates the sumptuous “Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)”, where six black boys in brilliant white shirts float at the centre of a watery idyll. But revisiting the scene in “Figures in Red Boat”, Doig paints bleached-out white boys disappearing into a murky ground while colour drains from a vessel whose outlines dissolve into streaks: the pessimism of Luc Tuymans rather than the enchantment of Gauguin.

Arranged around pairs or series of paintings that debate against one other, and with photographic sources closely documented, Edinburgh’s show emphasises Doig’s conceptual credentials. On a richly poured, stained blue abstract ground under a giant frond, a man, rendered realistically, runs along a beach in “Pelican (Stag)”. The impetus for the painting was anecdotal – from his boat, Doig saw a Trinidadian killing a pelican by drowning it, then wringing its neck as he dragged it home to eat. The incident spurred Doig to consider a found photograph in his archive, where an Indian fisherman drags his net along a beach, and the painting closely replicates that moving figure. But what gives the composition drama is a grand waterfall of pale blue paint, a block of colour in the centre of the canvas turning into ragged ribbons of dripping paint at the bottom – a burst of light recalling precisely Matisse’s “Shaft of Sunlight in the Woods of Trivaux” (1917), which had an important impact on Doig when he saw it at Tate’s 2002 Matisse/Picasso show a year before making “Pelican”.

In 2000 Doig had been bowled over by another radical Matisse, “Bathers and a Turtle”, particularly its balance between large abstract planes and trio of figures. Reprising his Canadian canoe paintings in Trinidad, he further simplified their composition into a tripartite structure like Matisse’s, with horizontal bands of sea, canoe and sky. He called the tropical series “100 Years Ago” because, as he says in Edinburgh’s catalogue: “That is our language. So much has happened with painting in the past 100 years that one can profit from and take nourishment from as a painter. Acknowledging that is extremely important.”

But to do so, Doig knows, is also a risk. Modernism was about fragmentation, memory, a sense of interiority that still resonates today. It was not about the image overload and virtual relation to reality that determine visual experience – and therefore artistic creation – now.

Doig’s collage aesthetic – coalescing images derived from diverse photographs, films, memories and quotations from paintings in a single canvas – responds to this and is one of the things that make his work look contemporary, enigmatic and ambivalent. Alienation and distancing effects are key. In “House of Pictures (Carrera)” he invites us to look at the Caribbean landscape through a geometric construct: a half-built, filmset house with windows giving out on to Doig’s familiar flat bands of sea and sky. In the foreground is a broken bottle of Stag beer – a reference to a similarly placed bottle in Manet’s realist “The Absinthe Drinker”. Can realism work? How, this painting asks, does a painter assess a landscape or depict postcolonial Trinidad without falling into the trap of exoticism?

Subsequent works repeatedly superimpose geometric grids to underline the formality of painting nature. A minimalist frame of blue/black rectangles, derived from a photograph of stacked beer crates, overwhelms arabesques of trees and a player in “Ping Pong”. A ziggurat of sound speakers installed for carnival dominate the palms and hills of “Maracas”. A ghostly figure fades, and rampant foliage is restricted by severe blocks of wall in “House of Flowers (See You There)”.

This device soon becomes formulaic and over-obvious – and forces one to confront a problem that does not go away with Doig: artifice. “Moruga”, depicting a re-enactment of Columbus’s landing, and “Cave Boat Bird Painting”, a self-portrait of the artist lying in his boat, pink hat drawn over his face, dreaming while a huge bird (menace? liberation?) flies overhead as time drifts by, are among many works that play up the fantasy nature of Doig’s whole endeavour.

I admire Doig’s superb technical assurance, his flair for composition, his exultation in the pleasure and materiality of paint in a conceptual age. But I am not in the end convinced or compelled by the world he creates because it is so deliberately, irrepressibly fake. His milieu is indeed one in which there are no foreign lands – an artist whose refusal of authenticity in favour of a second-hand cocktail of reveries, symbols and snapshots make him truly a global flâneur for our times. Anyone interested in the future of painting, and its difficult relationship with tradition, should see this show.

Peter Doig, ‘No Foreign Lands’, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, to November 3; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, January 25-June 8 2014

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