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The Week
The Week
The Week Staff

Peter Doig at The Courtauld Gallery review: an ‘eagerly awaited’ homecoming

A showcase of ‘everything that’s impressive and downright baffling’ about this brilliant Scottish painter

The Scottish artist Peter Doig is arguably “the most influential living painter of his generation”, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. His paintings have sold for record sums, and traces of his “enigmatic” style can be detected in the work of countless younger artists. Doig (b.1959) blends dreamlike figuration with elements of abstraction, incorporating both a wealth of art historical allusions and “references and quotes from his own life, photography and popular culture”. 

Having spent two decades living on the island of Trinidad, Doig has now returned to the UK – a homecoming celebrated in this “eagerly awaited” exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, where he is the first living contemporary artist to be exhibited amongst the Monets, Cézannes and van Goghs that make up the museum’s hallowed collection.

The show contains just 12 paintings, largely completed after his return to Britain but still hinting at Trinidad: they feature tropical foliage, hallucinatory beach scenes and references to the island’s musical culture. It is “an excellent showcase of everything that’s impressive, affecting and downright baffling” about this brilliant painter. 

The Courtauld is making a bold statement by hanging Doig’s “comfortingly figurative” but “testingly elusive” paintings among its masterpieces, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. He almost survives this “big promotion”. One particularly impressive painting depicts his teenage daughter “slumped eerily in a glowing red hammock”, a work which captures a “mysterious sense” of Romantic spirituality.  The “masterpiece” of the show, though, is a scene depicting a mountaineer “at the summit of a huge Alpine vista”; he is “dressed as a harlequined Pierrot” and is quite possibly a self-portrait. Elsewhere, however, Doig is on shakier ground. Works inspired by Trinidad, such as a number of “melancholy beach scenes” and a view of a calypso singer “hurrying along the street in Port of Spain”, find him “at his most illustrative and least successful”. 

Nevertheless, this is a “superb” show, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. A highlight is Bather, depicting a “monumental, muscular yet pallid” figure derived from both Cézanne’s painting of the same name, and, incongruously, an old photo of the actor Robert Mitchum. More impressive still is a recent picture which sees Doig’s son eating eggs by a north London canal, recalling Derain’s “dazzling” views of London bridges and Manet’s urban landscapes: the child appears vividly “present-tense”, but the “murky greenish water” and the ghostly figure passing on a barge belong to a different time altogether. It’s “entirely appropriate” to find Doig hanging here in the “impressionist stronghold of the Courtauld”. Few of his peers “could hold their own so impressively and fascinatingly in such company”.

The Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (020-3947 7777, Until 29 May;

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