Tate Britain’s recent retrospective of the work of Peter Doig was a perhaps unexpected blockbuster. Doig’s work is, of course — to his own admitted embarrassment — some of the most highly priced by any living artist. But it’s not, by any standards, populist. In fact, it can feel almost aggressive in its denial of easy sentiment or beauty. So what made the show such a success?
I wrote at the beginning of the year about Gregory Treverton’s division of intelligence problems into puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles can be solved if you have the correct information, whereas mysteries are multi-faceted, showing different parts of themselves from different angles, or to different people. A lot of popular contemporary art — think of Banksy’s work — is puzzles. Like a political cartoon, or a visual pun, it’s something you can look at, “get” and then move on. Doig’s work, on the other hand, is all about mystery. It teases you, nags at you, seeming to offer clues but always remaining tentatively out of reach.
Freud defined “the uncanny” as “the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar,” and this is exactly what Doig offers in his work. The setting are often absolutely familiar, even artistic cliches — a boat on a lake, a house in the trees, a moonlit pond — but Doig makes them strange and haunting, pregnant with a sense of the unknown. There are several ways in which he does this. One is a direct physical denial of our expectations of beauty: his sometimes jarring use of colour, or white dots spattered on the image. Another is the isolation of his subjects: there are often people in the pictures, but they are almost always turned away from us, or chopped abruptly at the limbs. Above all, perhaps, is the angles that he chooses. In Doig’s work we are almost always lurking: we’re hiding in branches, avoiding the road, crouching low down in the scrub. Even when there’s sunshine on the buildings, we are skulking in the shadows, peering through the trees:
Doig makes voyeurs of us all; but he also makes us authors. He puts us in a position of intrusion, but leaves it to us to figure out why. Are we spies? burglars? stalkers? That’s for us to answer — and that’s why these paintings work so well as mysteries, because we all bring our own fears and desires to the work. We spend a good deal of our lives observing — often judging — other people, feeling either vindicated or ashamed once the truth is revealed. With these silent, haunted landscapes, Doig illustrates Freud’s point exactly: that we can never look at anything without applying something of ourselves.