A Key Painting by Peter Doig for Scotland

The National Galleries of Scotland have for a long time wanted to own a painting by Peter Doig, one of the most exciting painters working today.

Poster for No Foreign Lands (2013) featuring Pelican (Stag), 2003.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1959 of Scottish parents and regards himself as Scottish. However, early on in his career, the prices of his works rose steeply, and the Galleries simply could not afford to acquire one.

In 2013 we, together with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, mounted a highly successful exhibition, shown in Edinburgh at the Royal Scottish Academy, called Peter Doig | No Foreign Lands.

The show concentrated on the works that he had produced since his move in 2002 to Trinidad in the Caribbean, a country that he had known since childhood, when his family moved there.

Working closely with the artist on the exhibition created a good relationship between him and the Galleries. Doig knew that we were very keen to have one of his paintings in our collection.

He very kindly lent us an important early work, Milky Way (1989-90), for several years, but now he and his family have arranged for the Galleries to be the beneficiary of the Government’s Acceptance-in-Lieu procedure and to acquire a key painting of his, At the Edge of Town (1986-88) from the estate of Bonnie Kennedy, Doig’s first wife.

The Galleries are enormously grateful to Peter and his children for making it possible for us to own such an important work.

Peter Doig Milky Way, 1989-90. Oil on canvas, 152 x 204 cm. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

At the Edge of Town was, as Doig himself recently explained, ‘made before I painted Milky Way (considered by many to be a seminal work …) and the first painting that referred directly to landscape. It is the first painting made in the late 80s that … informs the group of works that immediately followed (made from 1989- till late 90s).’ At the Edge of Town is, indeed, a new beginning in Doig’s work. He began it in Canada (the country where he had grown up after his family moved from Trinidad) in the summer of 1986.

He had spent the previous six years studying in London (a foundation year at Wimbledon School of Art and a BA at St Martin’s School of Art) and painting in a decidedly urban, post-Pop manner that showed him open to a range of influences from Chicago Imagism to Philip Guston. It was a period of experimentation, in which Doig made the most of the range of shows that were passing through London. He remembers, in particular, the series of great exhibitions that Nicholas Serota put on at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Peter Doig At the Edge of Town, 1986-88. Oil on canvas, 153.20 x 214.30 cm. Offered by the Kennedy Doig family in loving memory of Bonnie Kennedy, accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the National Galleries of Scotland, 2021. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS, London 2021.

On returning to Canada and living in the family home in Grafton, Ontario (a rural area not far from Toronto), he used a barn as a studio. It was here that he began work on the painting At the Edge of Town.

One of the first things that he decided to do was to paint the male figure on the right side of the canvas. The young man is a Canadian friend who had visited Doig in London. They decided to take a cheap flight to Portugal and stayed in a sort of guest house. Doig took a photo of his friend on the balcony and he has used this as the basis for the figure. It was (and still is) a common way for Doig to begin a painting: using a photograph that he had taken or a found image he had collected, something that had captured his attention, something that had started to gather around it possible other associations. Doig insists that, when he begins a painting, he does not have a fully worked-out idea or mood that he wishes to express. These come slowly during the process of painting and often over a long period of time, during which he can put the canvas to one side and work on other paintings.

In the case of At the Edge of Town he began it in late 1986 and only finished it in 1988. During that extended period he developed a growing interest in landscape painting, in particular the landscapes of Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, where he grew up, and the relationship between the figure(s) and the landscape in which they are set. The move back to Canada after a protracted period studying art in London was key to this development. Doig has said that, growing up in Canada, he had known about the ‘Group of Seven’, the artists who had revolutionized landscape painting in Canada in the 1920s and 30s and, in so doing, had helped create a national school of Canadian art. But only after he returned to Canada in 1986 did he begin to understand their true importance and to see how he and his work could fit into its continuing development. 

What helped trigger this realization was a now well-known incident in 1987. Doig happened to be watching the 1980 horror film by Sean Cunningham Friday the 13th on television at his parents’ house. Amidst all the carnage in the film, there is a deceptively idyllic scene of the lake, showing a canoe drifting in the distance with a girl leaning over the side with one hand idly dangling in the water. The lake is bordered by trees, some of which are beginning to take on early autumn hues and these in turn are mirrored in the still surface of the lake. Doig has spoken about this scene making a deep impression on him, reminding him of similar scenes in paintings by Edvard Munch and also of landscape paintings by artists from the ‘Group of Seven’, as well as artists not connected with the group, such as Tom Thomson and David Milne.

In a new episode of the National Galleries of Scotland podcast, Doig says that some of these Canadian artists showed together with Munch in Buffalo (New York), not far from Toronto, and that there is a distinct similarity between them, although Munch pushed the expressiveness and angularity of his forms much further. David Milne came perhaps closer to Munch both formally and expressively.

Peter Doig Friday 13th, 1987. Oil on canvas, 126 x 206 cm. Private Collection. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

Doig was so fired up by this new insight, that he immediately went out to his studio in the barn and painted the work Friday the 13th (pictured) in one session. He remembers that he painted the line of jagged pine trees that he could see through the slats of the barn walls. These expressively distorted and anthropomorphized trees reappear on the horizon line in At the Edge of Town (and also in the slightly later painting Milky Way). Doig said that their jagged appearance is typical of many Canadian pine trees, but he pushes their distortion to an extent that chimes with the exaggerated forms and colours that he gives to the figure.

There is, I think, a deliberate gauche awkwardness about the figure, heightened by the unnaturalness of the colours, that is reminiscent of Munch’s brooding young men in his series of Melancholy paintings. In our podcast Doig says that his friend had reached a sort of turning-point in his life and spoke to Doig about this during their stay in Portugal.

The artist captures this inner intensity in his depiction of the figure but brings it to an altogether higher plane by relating the young man’s mood to the twisted forms in the landscape, where nature seems to show sympathy with human emotions. The impact of the Canadian landscape artists and of Munch were key factors in helping Doig to move beyond the post-modern, post-Pop styles of his early London years and to create a more seamless synthesis of images and memories, a new all-pervading mood in his paintings: something that is still evident in Doig’s work today.

By Keith Hartley, Chief Curator & Deputy Director, 9 February 2022