Treasured island: Peter Doig at the Scottish National Gallery

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As the Scottish National Gallery hosts the first major exhibition of Peter Doig’s work in the country  of his birth, Adrian Hamilton finds that it is the images of the artist’s adopted homeland of Trinidad  that make for a thrilling show

Peter Doig is one of the small group of contemporary  artists – David Hockney is another – who continue to believe in paint as the greatest medium of art. Indeed, he speaks of oil paint almost as a lover, treasuring the way it drips on the canvas, thins with the brush stroke and changes as it hardens. “It’s a form of magic and alchemy,” he declares in an interview with Angus Cook published in the catalogue of his at the Scottish National Gallery of Art, waxing lyrical about the “way it congeals and how it takes on a different character when it goes bad, and the way that certain colours produce different kinds of dryness, and all those little things that may not seem important at all, but I think are ultimately incredibly important really”.

It’s a love affair, a form of eroticism at times, which makes his figurative and pure landscapes fluid in their feel, edging towards abstraction, often opaque and frequently at the point of dissolution. The figures are solid enough, based on photographs he has taken or collected, but they are seen slightly out of focus as if they existed in memory or in dreams. Doig is an  artist who tries to do what poets do with language, to capture images as  retrieved in memory, not as they are but as we recall them.

It’s a concern which springs from a peripatetic life. The exhibition in Edinburgh, opening in time for the Edinburgh festival, proclaims itself as the first show of Doig’s work to be held in the country of his birth. But, while he was born in Edinburgh, Doig is far from being a Scottish artist, living an early childhood in Trinidad, a youth in Canada and then nearly a decade in London, where he went to art college. He now boasts studios in Trinidad New York and London as well as a  professorial post in Düsseldorf.

Wisely, the Scottish National Gallery has chosen not to go for a full retrospective, given that the Tate in London held one only five years ago. Instead, it has chosen to concentrate on the works of the last dozen years in the new century. It makes for a thrilling show. These are the years in which, having been invited back for a short sojourn in 2000, Doig decided to  return to Trinidad in 2002 with his family to live there.

It was also the time when his own work was beginning to develop out of the realistic landscapes of Canada with their whites, browns and dark greens, influenced by Edvard Munch, Monet and Tom Thomson and the Canadian Group of Seven, into something more abstract and elusive.

Just as Matisse, a growing influence on Doig, found in Morocco a new  palette and a new way of composing space, so in Trinidad Doig has encountered a whole new range of colours and of culture. In comes Gaugin’s yellows and reds and sculptural figures, so does Matisse’s light greens along with the dense foliage of the jungle and the horizon lines of sea and sand of a Caribbean island.

It makes for a glorious display of  colour and texture. The upper gallery of the Scottish Royal Academy in which the exhibition is being held are well suited to the giant canvases on which Doig paints. Around the central gallery are hung a series of major paintings, some in pairs, displaying Doig’s continuous concerns: two versions of the Red Boat, the one in which the boat glides through the waters made green by the tress around, the other in which the red of the boat drips down in to the water; Man Dressed as Bat of 2007, based on the figure of a carnival-goer; and Mal d’Estomac, called after a bay on the island, move as far into pure form and colour as you could go without becoming completely abstract. While Driftwood from 2001-02 is an extraordinary evocation of listlessness through strokes of yellow and green brushed onto the white canvas.

There is meaning, or at least the hint of a back story, to some of these canvases. The canoe is a recurring theme from his Canadian days, used both to divide the horizontal space of his  compositions but also to suggest time as it drifts through memory. Pelican from 2004 is based on the sight he  encountered of a local man drowning a pelican to eat. Taking a picture seemed wrong so he used the image of a south Indian fisherman dragging his net along the beach which he’d bought in a London market, transferring it to the Trinidadian hauling the pelican along, using the same image on a deep blue vision of a man in Pelican (Stag) in which the lighter blue which acts as a shaft of light on the figure drips down the canvas as it dissipates.

Sport comes into play, as it did with skiing and skating in the Canadian pictures. There’s a striking Gauginesque picture of cricketing, Paragon from 2006, in which the energy of the  bowler is played against the tension of the waiting batsman and the ease of the fielder across red sands and swirling water, and a classic Doig painting Ping Pong of 2006-08, in which the thrusting player is moved to the side and the centre taken up by a geometric stack of blue and black squares based on a pile of bright beer crates which the artist had photographed.

Most ambiguous is a Van Gogh-style night study titled Music of the Future (2002-07), in which a lakeside village is pictured horizontally in a haze of dark blues and greens. It owes something to Whistler’s Nocturnes, hence the musical analogy perhaps, but also to Doig’s sense of an outsider looking across at a culture which is vibrant but also not part of him. While he glories in the vegetation, he is careful not to romanticise it.

Not the least virtue of doing a show of a decade’s work in this fashion is that it enables the curators to accompany the major works with many of the oil-on-paper studies which the artist uses to prepare, and develop his themes. In most cases, he takes his photographic image and plays with it from various angles before deciding how he is going to use it. For Lapeyrouse Wall of 2004, a near-surrealist picture of stillness of a man with a pink umbrella walking beside a graveyard wall, he sketches in pencil and paints the figure in different dress, with varying shadows and quite different textures of stone wall. With Music of the Future, he picks out a tiny figure he has inserted of a bearded, cloaked figure and then makes a complete picture of that.

Where does he go next? From the  latest pictures in this show, still fresh from painting, his interest is both more abstract and more symbolic. Night Painting (North Coast) of 2012 might as well be an abstract in its  subtle modulation of blue and green were it not for the Matisse-like fronds which anchor the canvas to the right. A self-portrait, Cave Boat Bird Painting (2010-12), sees himself drifting out of a cave, hat firmly down his face in meditation, while a dark bird – a  constant theme of recent work – flies above. It’s a dreamy vision and a strong one but, looking at these late paintings, you don’t sense any firm direction. After Trinidad you feel the art of this most poetic of painters seeks a fresh beginning. Maybe Scotland could be the place.

Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org) to 3 Nov

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness