Yesterday was the final day of a large exhibition at the Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts of the works of Scottish painter Peter Doig, who grew up in Montreal and currently lives in Trinidad. I finally got myself there, in-between services at the cathedral. The show focusses primarily on his recent work, done after his return to Trinidad where he's lived since 2002. Doig is a highly successful contemporary painter; in 2007 the sale of one of his paintings for 11.3 million set a record, at the time, for a living European artist.
There was a lot to like in this show, though I admit that I spent a good deal of it feeling puzzled. There were a number of paintings I didn't like at all - or didn't get, perhaps -- and what I felt were his strongest works seemed either anomalous, or maybe had been de-emphasized by the curators.
Doig's best-known works seem to be huge canvases like this one, or the first painting above, set in Trinidad, where he now lives. The paintings incorporate staining techniques, drips, brushwork, and thick impasto, as well as neon or metallic paints on occasion, to create vibrant, interesting surfaces. He's a remarkable colorist, though some of his choices appeal more to me than others. The introductory notes to the exhibition put him in the tradition of Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Bonnard - a short list that includes three of my favorite painters. It would be a stretch for me to put him in that same class, but it was a show well worth seeing.
Rothko was also mentioned. There were two enormous paintings, far more abstract than the others, that I liked very much. This one in particular was far more mystical than the other works, and gorgeous in color and surface. I was intrigued that it consistently drew the largest crowd, and the most people sitting or standing in front of it for long periods.
Doig grew up in Montreal, and Canadian scenes feature in his earlier work. This painting, "Spearfishermen," is set in Trinidad, but it reminded me very much of some Inuit works I've seen - perhaps it's the hooded figure in yellow in the canoe, plus the spear. I wondered if there is a connection for Doig.
One of my favorite pieces was this etching, titled Corbeaux (Raven). It was stuck in the lower right corner of a wall of small works in the last room -- barely noticeable -- but it had an undeniable power for me, also akin to some Inuit prints.
I was surprised, later, to find a related painting in the museum's own permanent collection, as I walked through the building on my way out.
Along with the crows, my favorite work in the show was this portrait -- also small and relegated to a corner. It's so beautifully and freely painted, and the color palette he uses is subtle and phenomenal -- my photo (all these were taken with my phone) barely does it justice.
The show's title is "Nulle Terre Etrangere" (No Foreign Lands) and the accompanying text states that Doig, who has lived in many places, no longer considers that there are "strange places," merely that the traveler is the one who moves between places of equal weightiness and identity. Many of the works are Gauguin-inspired and dreamlike, showing a ghostly artist within a tropical scene, or figures in boats, far away from an island in the distance. The comparison between these artists is inevitable, and holds up, though in the paintings where Doig tries to distance himself - such as a geometric ping-pong scene without tropical reference - I think he's less successful. I haven't read anything yet about the artist's explanations of his work, and I stayed away from curatorial essays, wanting to experience the works without interpretation. What I found myself responding to the most seemed to be either simple, monumental images of people or animals, or the most abstract paintings -- probably not surprising, given my preferences in art.
After Montreal, the show will travel to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, its only other destination. Do visit the museum's site to see more and better reproductions of the works.