by Sue Hubbard
It takes a certain chutzpah for an artist to dig out his early student work and put it on display for the world to access, especially in a rarefied Mayfair Gallery hidden away in a gracious Georgian house just yards from Claridges Hotel. In the case of Peter Doig, such confidence may well be underwritten by the fact that his White Canoe – a dreamy painting of a boat reflected in a lake like some post-modern version of Charon's craft – fetched the staggering sum of £5.7m in 2007 when put up for auction by Charles Saatchi.
Doig is something of an outsider. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, the son of a peripatetic shipping accountant, he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, then moved to Canada until he was nineteen, where he took up such northern rituals as skiing and ice hockey. After leaving for London to study painting at St. Martin's, followed by an MA at the Chelsea College of Art, he supported himself as a dresser at the English National Opera and became absorbed in the emerging club scene frequented by the likes of performance artist Leigh Bowery and experimental film makers such as Isaac Julien. Chelsea College was a very different proposition, then, to Goldsmiths, the conceptual kindergarten that spawned Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst under the éminence grise Michael Craig Martin. It was full of painters still interested in the possibilities of what paint could do, despite the popular mantra that painting was a dead form. Doig was never allied to the conceptualist YBAs, or included in Saatchi's watershed show Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997. And, unlike many of the YBAs, he continues to work alone, without a studio full of assistants. It doesn't appeal to him be surrounded by people he has to keep busy; to become a production line. He likes the “simplicity” of paint; “the directness, the dabbling quality”; and still believes in the possibilities of being able to surprise and innovate in this most ancient of media. People are always asking him when he's going to make a film. But he's not interested. His outsider status has meant that like many émigrés, he responds best to places he knows when he is not actually there. Canada was painted whilst in London, the Caribbean from the vantage point of his Tribeca Studio.
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Tate Modern, London: 30th September 2010-16th January 2011
National Gallery of Art, Washington: 27th February – 5th June 2011
There can be few artists who have been as lionised and lambasted as Gauguin. Condemned by many as a colonial pederast who bought the syphilitic worm into a South Seas heaven, an arrogant self-promoter who abandoned his wife and children for the life of a lotus eater, he represents for others the archetypal painter who gave up everything for his art, breaking away from the bourgeois strictures of a career as a stockbroker and the dab-dab of Impressionism to create paintings full of flat vibrant colour that pre-figured German Expressionists such as Nolde and Kirchner. For his champions he has long been held up as the hero of modernism, a painter who released art from the confines of the naturalistic world and liberated colour to create works of universal symbolism and mystery.
[Photo: Paul Gauguin
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Les Aїeux de Tehamana / The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has many Parents) 1893
Oil on canvas 76.3 x 54.3 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr and Mrs Charles Deering McCormick.]
So much of the narrative that surrounds Gauguin is myth, often of his own making. He has been the subject of countless representations from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence to Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel The Way to Paradise. One of the first artists to have the media savvy to exploit the narrative of his own life, the Faustian pact he made with posterity finally came back to taunt him when, in 1902, isolated and ill, he dreamt of settling in the Pyrenees. “You are,” his friend Daniel de Monfreid wrote, “ at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth…. In short, you enjoy the immunity of the great dead; you belong now to the history of art.”
That he had an extraordinary life is not in question. His father was a political journalist and his mother Aline the daughter of the writer and political activist, Flora Tristan, a pioneer of modern feminism. After the 1848 revolution his family left France for Peru and political exile, where his father died of a heart attack leaving Aline to bring up her two young sons in Lima at the residence of an elderly uncle. It was here that Gauguin spent the first five years of his life, which would later allow him to claim Peruvian heritage and caste himself in the role of a ‘savage’. “The Inca according to legend,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker in 1888, “came straight from the sun and that’s where I will return.” Yet his mythic, archetypal images of Polynesian women and his ‘essentialist’ stereotypes of Breton peasants have often proved problematic for contemporary audiences in these more politically correct times.
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