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Photo: George Whiteside
For most of us, the question, “Where are you from?” is an innocuous conversation-starter. For artist Peter Doig, it’s more complicated. Nearly every discussion of his painting starts with his hopscotching biography. Born in the U.K., he grew up in Trinidad and Canada; as an adult, he’s lived and worked in all three places, as well as New York City.
Appropriately, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition No Foreign Lands takes its name from the Robert Louis Stevenson quote: “There are no foreign lands; it is the traveller only that is foreign.” The fact that Doig’s landscapes are based on postcards, photographs, and memory only adds to the sense that travel and displacement are integral to his art.
All of his paintings have the tension of culture clash. His Trinidad paintings evoke Fauvist French artists in the tropics. His Canadian images suggest the Group of Seven, who fused European influences and Canadian landscapes to create something uniquely their own. The National Gallery of Canada has several works by Doig in its collection, including Grand Riviere (2002), Untitled (Double Portrait) , and 100 Years Ago (2001).
I’ve long been drawn to his art, perhaps because my own background is similar to his: childhood in the tropics, then the U.S. and Europe, then immigrating to Canada. I appreciate someone who can see a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket as an ethnographic textile.
But the No Foreign Lands exhibition made it clear to me that there’s much more to Doig’s work than the fish-out-of-water nostalgia that initially attracted me.
The museum’s galleries open onto one another, allowing visual connections between the very different subject matter in Doig’s paintings. Indeed, Doig mentioned at the exhibition opening that he loved the way No Foreign Lands showed him connections between his paintings that he hadn’t necessarily noticed himself.
What immediately becomes apparent in the exhibition is how international the paintings are in terms of style. Two of Doig’s main influences—Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin—had their own expatriate experiences: Matisse in North Africa, and Gauguin in Tahiti. But their “exoticism” didn’t just come from their local-colour subject matter. Like many artists of their era, they both looked beyond European traditions for inspiration. Matisse absorbed the aesthetics of African art, Silk Road textiles, Orientalist art, and more. Gauguin’s influences included Japanese prints, folk art, and the tribal art of the South Seas.
Doig, as their heir, draws his inspiration from all these sources, and from every inhabited continent. His paintings feel worldly not only because of what he paints, but how he paints. In every aspect of his painting, he is a man of the world.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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