Since the 19th century, artists have mythologised the tropics, presenting them as sun-drenched sites of paradise onto which their own fantasies could be cast. All art is a lie, an illusion, and that’s exactly what Peter Doig shows his viewers in a major new exhibition at The Courtauld. Having lived in Trinidad, he has taken this island as his disquieting muse. Deconstructing picture-perfect postcard views of the Caribbean, he instead creates more complex, murkily-painted visions of beaches by night and the ocean pictured through window bars.
His paintings recall those of Winslow Homer, who presents viewers with a darker and more stormy side to paradise in images which resonate more than ever today, as countries such as Barbados vote to cut ties with the British Monarchy and the climate crisis affects these small island communities more than others. Far from offering an idealised view of the Caribbean and other tropics, Bahama’s beaches are invaded by colonial rule, red flags wave in Bermuda, ships are surrounded by sharks, tall walls segregate people, and trees are torn apart by hurricanes.
Uninterested in documenting reality, however, Doig also riffs on the likes of Pissarro and Gauguin (whose paintings hang in the galleries next door) to highlight the compulsion of of artists to construct exotic and eroticised visions of the Caribbean. There’s something both familiar and disconcerting about Doig’s narratives, which offer viewers only more layers of mythology.
Doig’s canvases are also filled with ghostly figures, pulled from his memory and imagination, who exist in what the artist terms “painted spaces”. Simultaneously, he weaves in references to Trinidadian music and poetry by the likes of Derek Walcott, who has written poems in response to Doig’s paintings, questioning “the mask/in which the whole society is based”. His paintings are soundscapes just as much as they are landscapes.
Peter, I’m Glad You Asked Me Along
Peter, I’m glad you asked me along,
But here is the question everyone will ask.
Will your brush pick up an accent, and singsong
infect your melody concealed in a canvas,
picking the place where you really belong
in Trinidad and all the bullshit that goes with it.
What bullshit? Everywhere is wrong
as all forms miss perfection, hence the mask
in which the whole society is based:
all its endeavour is composed in song
because I love the place in spite of it
for its immense variety of racial choice,
and wished I knew all of its languages
and observed all its customs with one voice
this craziness is just where we belong –
where else have you heard such music, such great noise?
Peter Doig joins a long line of great artists who have taken the Caribbean as their muse, and is aware of his role in continuing this tradition of picturing paradise. But this modern master, who paints elusive images of the island, self-consciously offers his viewers more mythology about the Caribbean. Yet, there is truth in his magical realism, too: this great painter has been deeply inspired by the island and its people, as he recognises in the powerful and mesmerising self-portrait, ‘Painting on an Island (Carrera)’.