The man who paints Canada from Trinidad

In Peter Doig’s haunting images of Trinidad, a homage to our wilderness
Sara Angel
Gaby Gerster/LAIF/Redux

In 2007, Peter Doig went from being a painter quietly admired by collectors and curators to an art-world colossus when his work White Canoe—created 16 years earlier—was auctioned for a record-breaking $11.3 million. Soon after, both Scots and Canadians claimed the Edinburgh-born, Toronto- and Montreal-raised artist as their own—an impetus for the remarkable show No Foreign Lands, opening at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts later this month.

A collaboration between the Quebec institution and the National Galleries of Scotland (where it was on view last fall), the exhibition, somewhat ironically, focuses not on Doig’s work about the U.K. or Canada, but on his paintings made in Trinidad, the artist’s adopted country, and where he has lived for the last 12 years. Still, there is a profound tie between the show’s works and Canada, where Doig first picked up a brush. “In some ways, an artist is only ever capable of painting one painting, again and again, in a single lifetime,” he says in the exhibition’s catalogue. For him, that image is a solitary figure set in an urban or rural landscape. This composition is the through line of Doig’s career, and one first inspired by the wilderness of the North.

Born in 1959 to Scottish parents, Doig emigrated twice before turning seven—a fact alluded to in the show’s title—thanks to his father’s career as an accountant for a shipping firm, first to Trinidad, and then to Canada. At 19, following a stint on an Alberta gas rig, he returned to the U.K. to study at the Wimbledon School of Art. As a teen, Doig read how members of the Rolling Stones and the Kinks met at London art schools. “I figured, that’s the place where interesting people go,” he says from his Port of Spain studio.

The British art scene was exploding as he completed his M.A. at the Chelsea School of Art in 1990. Although stylistically he was an outsider, making large-scale paintings that, in his words, were “handmade-looking and homey” against a landscape dominated by conceptual artists including Damien Hirst (then preserving a shark in formaldehyde) and Tracey Emin (who would exhibit her unmade bed), he benefited from the zeitgeist. “A lot of people who were interested in contemporary art started visiting London,” he says. “By proxy, a lot of people came to see me.”

In 1991, Doig began a major group of figure-in-landscape paintings against boreal settings. They were of individuals sitting solo in a canoe. He came up with the subject while watching a scene in the horror classic Friday the 13th, but the series was equally informed by artist Tom Thomson, and his mysterious death in 1917 on Canoe Lake (Doig titled one of the paintings after the lake). The work garnered critical attention and, in 1994, he was nominated for the Turner Prize, the most important British art award.

In 2000, Doig took an artist’s residency in Trinidad, a place he had not visited in 33 years. Captivated by its landscape, and the opportunities it afforded his family (he and his wife have five children), he made it his home. There, his palette grew bright, his images more abstracted and, like early 20th-century greats Matisse, Gaugin and Bonnard, he concentrated on rich scenes of colourful serenity. “My so-called Canadian paintings were all made in London,” says Doig. “They put my inspiration at a distance. Now, my work is much more directed by what was in front of me.”

This includes scenes of Port of Spain’s graffitied walls, its beaches, wildlife and local characters, including a flâneur who strolls, an open umbrella shading him from the sun. And yet, as much as Doig takes us into his present, the exhibition reveals how he pays homage to his past. In 100 Years Ago, we see a solo figure sitting in a canoe, only now, the vessel hovers in Trinidad’s tropical Gulf of Paria, with Carrera Island set off in the distance.

This scene and others in No Foreign Lands are rendered in a hallucinatory style that seems to conflate what Doig must encounter when he when he walks through Trinidad by day and the landscapes of his dreams at night. They offer a haunting vision that hovers between appearance and reality, and demonstrates that, while Doig may live in a foreign land, his pictorial memory is firmly situated here.