❚ EXACTLY 40 YEARS AGO as he was graduating from St Martin’s art school Peter Doig told me: “You’ve got to be an entrepreneur these days”. I was writing a powerful critique of the rot that had set into the UK art-school teaching system as prime minister Thatcher’s education cuts torpedoed creativity. For his generation – just before the YBAs devised their own solution – it was becoming ever more difficult for young artists to make their mark and there was plenty of unrest to report in my 1983 survey for The Face magazine.
So, hasn’t he done well since then?! During the past 15 years key paintings by Doig have sold for record prices in the international market – $11m, $5m, $11m, $12m, $17m, $39m and $29m. Averaging those seven sums, and grossing up to estimate the worth of the 12 paintings in his exhibition opening this week in London, yields their possible total value as $212million.
So when I walked into the Courtauld Gallery this morning to view his 12 newest paintings hung in two modest rooms, all I could think of were the zeros. Was I standing amidst 212,000,000 dollars-worth of art? And how do we square those zeros with Doig’s own expressionist take on magical realism, eerily mesmerising landscapes and striking figurative images in which he, his family and friends appear with smudged features as if in dreamworlds, described by one critic as “a troubled Arcadia”? Even his two self-portraits are unsettling. Multiple perspectives also tease. Half the pictures are enormous, some have taken him years to complete, others look as if they’re unfinished.
Their idiosyncratic visual chemistry reflects the itinerant life of this 63-year-old Scottish-born Canadian who has also lived in Trinidad and London. Painterly is the one word that unites the leading critics in their reviews of Doig, yet he achieves this largely without thick gestural brushmarks, and often with washes that let pigments emerge subtly through others in sea, sky and land, suggesting remembrance of lost times. Many touches refer to the impressionist masters displayed in an adjacent space at the Courtauld.
His colours can be strong, as in Alice at Boscoe’s, where a vivid jungle of red and green foliage dominates and his daughter slowly emerges as the faintest female form slung in a hammock. Similar contrasts make Music (2 Trees) a haunting rumination featuring his wife and other friends. In contrast, House of Music (Soca Boat) relies on whole swathes of hues to intrigue.
The larger paintings include works that were created in the artist’s studio since returning to London in 2021. One such titled Canal has shady characters loitering on the Regent’s Canal tow-path where his son is having breakfast before an unlikely crimson bridge. Another titled Alpinist casts a skier as a harlequin against a brittle snowy landscape, inviting us to consider why.
So there’s plenty of food for thought before those zeros re-enter the mind’s eye, ker-ching… Coincidentally yesterday morning, Peter Doig was telling Radio4’s Today programme how the artist has little or no say in what millionaire collectors such as Charles Saatchi are prepared to charge or spend as paintings pass from one to another in the secondary market. Recalling that in 2021 his picture titled Swamped sold for $40m (!), he said: “I sold Swamped for £800 and of all the paintings of mine that have sold for £250million, the amount of money I got was less than £64,000… There are a lot of people out there who want to profit off you somehow.”
Only last month Doig was awarded £2.5m by a judge in a United States court following a decade-long dispute with a gallerist alongside a collector who claimed to own a painting made by him as a teenager. Doig denies this and is donating the windfall to a not-for-profit organisation.
Concluding his Today interview, Doig said: “The money’s not what it’s about. It has given me a life I would never have imagined – travel and making connections – but who could have imagined showing [here at the Courtauld Gallery] in the room next to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère?”
➢ Peter Doig is the first living artist to exhibit
at the Courtauld Gallery since its £57m revamp in 2021.
His exhibition runs until 29 May 2023
➢ Peter Doig speaks to Channel4 News
about his London show