The Bewitching World of Peter Doig: Your Five-Point Guide

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Dior Autumn/Winter 2021 Menswear Kim Jones Peter Doig
Dior Autumn/Winter 2021 Menswear© Alfredo Piola

In the wake of Kim Jones’ collaboration with Peter Doig at Dior, Harry Seymour provides a brief introduction to the Scottish painter

As if by coincidence, on the morning of Blue Monday the artistic director of menswear at Dior Kim Jones unveiled the latest artist to collaborate with the Parisian fashion house; the suitably melancholy Scottish painter Peter Doig.

Proof that Jones keeps one finger firmly planted in the art world, Doig joins a stellar line-up of names who have applied their aesthetic to his catwalk, including the portraitist Amoako Boafo, fictional archaeologist Daniel Arsham, and puppet-master KAWS.

The fruits of Doig and Jones’ joint effort were unveiled in the Autumn/Winter 2021 collection, previewed on Dior’s website yesterday. Ahead of that; a short guide to the life and work of the notoriously private painter of dreams. 

1. He was called an overnight success

In 2007, Sotheby’s sold Doig’s haunting painting of a canoe drifting across a swamp – inspired by the penultimate scene in Friday the 13th – for £5.7 million. The amount is important because the picture’s low estimate was just £800,000, but the hammer price made him Europe’s most expensive living artist.

At the time, Doig was relatively unknown, more used to seeing his works fetch several thousands. The auction of White Canoe, from Charles Saatchi’s collection to a Russian billionaire, made the press, blue-chip galleries and even Doig himself (who didn’t receive a penny) do a double take.

In reality, labelling him an overnight success was unfair. By 2007, Doig was already a Trustee of Tate and had narrowly lost out on the Turner Prize to Antony Gormley.

2. His credibility hinges on his refusal to do what’s cool

Born in 1959 in Edinburgh and raised between Canada and Trinidad, Doig spent the 80s studying art at Wimbledon, Saint Martin’s and Chelsea. But at the moment he graduated, painting was dead.

London in 1990 belonged to the rambunctious Damien Hirst, whose rotting cow’s head was being celebrated as art for a new generation obsessed with money, sex and death. By contrast, Doig only managed to sell one or two of his landscape paintings priced at £1,000 each during his graduation show that year. “When the YBA wave started, some of the people in my course at Chelsea literally changed their work overnight,” he recalled.

He stayed faithful, though, and a few savvy dealers began hedging their bets on his unfashionableness. Fast-forward to 2007 and when the YBAs’ bubble was ready to pop, Doig’s art was a humble antidote.

3. Despite being called the ‘Painters’ Painter’, he can’t draw

In 2000, Doig’s friend Chris Ofili (who won the Turner Prize for painting with elephant dung), was offered a residency in Trinidad. Doig went with him and fell back in love with his childhood island, moving there permanently in 2002. 

Doig spends ten hours a day in his converted rum-factory studio, working elements of old photographs, adverts and film stills up onto large canvases – a technique finessed after a tutor once announced his drawings were the worst he’d ever seen. He then weaves in personal memories, like his brother standing on a frozen lake (Blotter); or seeing a man strangle a pelican on a beach (Pelican).

Doig also talks about the plasticity of his paint, which he says “has a kind of melting quality,” and applies it like layers of fabric. His approach to colour is the same as Rothko’s; using deep pigments and heavy, seeping strokes they were both able to conjure a sense of tension.

4. Doig said the price of White Canoe made him feel sick

“I was struck by the pressure it put me under – to go into a studio and think you’re going to make a painting that’s going to make a million dollars,” he said. His words fell on deaf ears, though. In 2015, Christie’s sold Swamped, another painting of a white canoe from 1990, for $25.9 million, making him the most expensive living artist in the world.

Since then, the baton has passed to Jeff Koons, whose Rabbit smashed $91.1 million in 2019, but Doig still thinks his prices are symptoms of a market gone nuts.

5. But he has settled into later in life

Doig was already feeling turbulent when Swamped smashed records. In 2013 he had been embroiled in a bizarre court case, having to prove that he didn’t paint a rocky landscape signed ‘Peter Doige’ – valued by its owner at $8 million.

These days, however, Doig leans back into island life and between painting sunbathers and sailors spends his time running a free classic film club from his studio, tasked with designing the posters and stocking the beers. The first movie he selected was the 1972 Jamaican drama The Harder They Come. And while splitting his time between his children and properties in London and New York, he’s even started collecting Calypso records.