31 Jul 2013

Peter Doig: famous artists ‘are quickly forgotten’

The acclaimed Scottish painter Peter Doig’s new exhibition opens this week, but he tells Katie Razzall that the high value of his work “doesn’t give me confidence”.

“I like painting,” Peter Doig told me with a grin, when I suggested to him he had been credited with reinvigorating the art form. He’s far too modest to accept his acclaim, but I met the Scottish-born artist as he put the finishing touches to his first ever major show in the city of his birth.

‘No Foreign Lands’ opens later this week at Edinburgh’s National Galleries Scotland and he gave Channel 4 News a preview as the pictures were still being hung.

Not just still being hung, it turned out, but changed in situ. He told me: “There’s no need to finish one until it has to go out the door,” but this time, changes were made after the door was firmly closed.

Peter Doig wasn’t entirely happy with one of his most recent works as it was put up for the exhibition having travelled many thousands of miles from Trinidad where the artist is based. So he went out, bought some paint and altered the mask the figure is wearing.

The last time Channel 4 News met Peter Doig was 20 years ago, when he’d just won the John Moores prize for his painting, Blotter. He told us then he was in debt, had got back from holiday to a pile of bills and came across the letter announcing his £20,000 prize. The money was very welcome.

Peter Doig's latest exhibition opens this week

Europe’s highest-value living artist

Twenty years on, his paintings sell for much more. In 2007 he became Europe’s highest-value living artist when White Canoe sold at auction for more than £7 million. Today he said when he heard what had happened it was “disturbing”, “totally crazy” and “a huge shock”. Of course this is the secondary art market. He’d sold White Canoe years before for £1,000.

“It doesn’t give me confidence,” he said when I asked if selling at high prices gave him any kind of validation or, at least, confidence that he is doing something right. “Auction houses talk about masterpieces, but that’s ridiculous. Masterpieces can’t be decided in the artist’s own lifetime.” And although he’s materially more comfortable than he was when Channel 4 News encountered him in his London studio in 1993, he says he enjoyed life just as much then.

Peter Doig's latest exhibition opens this week

The eight rooms in the gallery are an explosion of colour and expression. A ghostly figure of a girl peers out from a tree at night, a shaman-like man sits in a red canoe; there are echoes of Gauguin, and an abstract Rothko-esque painting called Mal D’Estomac, the explanation reads, refers to a stomach malady that killed many in Trinidad.

One room consists entirely of film posters painted by Doig for the film club he held weekly in his studio on the island for eight years. They’d lain piled up on the floor until someone told him he should put them in an exhibition.

There are stands holding the photographs and other jottings he often uses as inspiration – a Johnny Cash-type figure in a long leather coat appears in House of Pictures, while a photo of Doig himself is transported into Cave Boat Bird Painting.

There is much of his dreamy style in these 200 or so paintings from the last decade. Doig comes from a long line of great colourists and his works have a magical realist feel. When I asked him to describe them he would only say: “I paint landscapes with figures in them.”

Does he worry about the tag of being one of Europe’s most sought after living artists? He says not. After all, “there are so many examples of artists who are successful in their own lifetime and then quickly forgotten. You just have to keep going”.