You’d be pretty miserable too if you'd swapped Trinidad for North London. That’s what Peter Doig did in 2021, leaving behind his life of sun and sand for a life of drizzle and smog.
It’s not the first time he’s done it, either. The Scottish-both Canadian painter grew up on the Caribbean island before moving to London for art school as a young adult. Now he’s mirrored that seismic shift later in life. And even though the paintings in this show at the Courtauld are bathed in heat and light, they’re also creaking with longing and aching with sadness. They’re works of transition, change and loss, all painted and re-painted over and over between 2014 and now, and they’re gorgeous.
I’ve got a thing for Doig anyway, so I was bound to love this show. The way he combines painting from photography with art historical influences into a cryptic mess of memory makes him one of my favourite artists. And he’s seriously influential; countless artists today blatantly rip him off, every hazy figurative painting exhibition you see is his fault.
And this new work is different, slow to reveal itself, but still brilliant. The paintings are full of Trinidad. Two bathers lie on a moonlit beach, floating unnaturally against the sand in a nocturnal, broken vision of paradise. The sea foams and boils behind a topless strongman in one work, under a boat filled with musicians in another. The island is everywhere.
Every hazy figurative painting exhibition you see is his fault
Music is everywhere too: two guitarists play to a woman sitting on a donkey, a dark cloaked singer stands in front of an instrument shop. These are the sights and sounds, the real memories and half forgotten moments of Trinidad, reimagined and reshaped from miles away in thick dark paint and washed out murk.
And the paintings are full of art history too, nods to Cezanne and Gauguin, all dream-like and shrouded in shadows. Then there’s a more recent painting of a skier in the alps, another of his son on the Regent’s canal towpath. He couldn’t be further from Trinidad now.
Lots of these works are great (though a couple work a little less well) and the etchings downstairs are really, really good. But one is absolutely jaw-dropping. ‘Alice at Boscoe’s’ shows the artist’s daughter asleep in a hammock in a lush tropical garden. She’s ghostly, barely there, almost translucent, on the verge of being swallowed by the trees and walls as she sleeps. It’s a glowing, shimmering, odd painting.
It perfectly sums up this show and its brutal, almost uncomfortable nostalgia. Because nostalgia isn’t pleasant, it’s a longing for the past, something you can never have. The figures here are long gone, those years will never be lived again, those strummed guitars and pounding rhythms will never be heard for the first time again.
Maybe I've got this wrong. Maybe you’ll look at these sunny paintings of seas and calypso and feel transported. But to me, this is Doig grasping, reaching out, trying desperately, feverishly to hold on to those memories, and failing. That's why there’s this constant interplay between haze and solidity, foggy mess and thick lines; some of each memory is vivid, almost real and tangible, and other bits are fading inescapably away forever. Getting to watch that happen in paint is deeply affecting, and very beautiful.