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The first painting you see in the Courtauld Gallery’s Peter Doig exhibition is a self-portrait. Dressed like a trendy teenager in sneakers and slacks, the artist’s face looks like an anatomical dummy with the skin peeled back. Doig’s posture mirrors that of a sweaty man in his earlier painting, Stag (2002-05), who slouches for rest against a tree trunk in an empty forest. In the weird artificial light of Night Studio(Studiofilm & Racquet Club) (2015), we move back and forth from an earlier moment in Doig’s life to another, from a place of fevered tropics to an air-conditioned studio, and from reality into fiction. Another man’s head, older and in green with a beard, and almost indistinguishable from unchecked ivy, impossibly peers over the artist’s shoulder as though forewarning the future. We are everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Doig has spent much of his life travelling and reinventing himself in new cultures. These recent pictures on show at the Courtauld were predominantly made between 2019 and 2023, and are evidence of his wandering eye for unusual forms. Born in Edinburgh to an itinerant father who worked for a shipping company, Doig emigrated as an infant first to the tropics of Trinidad and then to the snow-covered vistas of Canada. In their heat and ice, these two natural palettes surround and often envelop the lost figures who populate his pictures. After spells studying in London in the 1980s (at Wimbledon, Saint Martin’s and Chelsea art schools), Doig returned to Trinidad and spent the next two decades painting otherworldly and at times hallucinogenic figurative paintings inspired by the calypso music and luscious vegetation around Port of Spain. During this period, he was rightly recognised as one of the best colourists of his generation.

The bridge glitters Klimtian crimson while the canal water is an algae green so thick it resembles an overgrown lawn

Doig recently set up a studio in London and the capital has become a new subject for his idiosyncratic revisions of landscape. In the ethereal universe of Canal (2023), which sees north London’s beloved Regent’s Canal shoved backwards through a nightmarish Edvard Munch cityscape, Doig’s son sits silently by a plate of eggs while a young man in a drab kitchen-sink overcoat drives a houseboat. My guess is we are close to the towpath in Haggerston, where I walk every day. Here, the bridge glitters with a Klimtian crimson while the canal water is an algae green that is so thick it resembles an overgrown lawn. It is unmistakably London and yet resolutely a place that exists only in Doig’s prismatic memory.

Price and palette

This exhibition of recent works by Doig is the first of a contemporary artist alongside the Courtauld’s world-famous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings since the three-year £57m revamp of the gallery in 2021. In the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries, named after the billionaire founder of the gambling company Bet365, it is a cramped display of only two rooms that will leave some visitors wincing at the £14 ticket price. He could have used an extra room. Many of the paintings themselves depict repose and leisure but never feel carefree, or at least not in the way Édouard Manet’s nearby study for Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863-68) feels carefree, despite shared subjects and palettes. Inspired by phosphorescence on the sea, Night Bathers (2011-19) finds us on Trinidad’s Maracas Bay in a nocturnal reverie in which a blue woman and a grey man, alone together, face apart.

Alpinist (2019-22), which is predictably the Courtauld’s marketing image, sees a carnivalesque skier draped in a harlequin outfit, the trademark dress of the mischievous outsider in paintings by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. The dimensions hit you like a rockslide on a mountain face. The canvas itself towers over the visitors, which creates a sublime relationship between us and the Matterhorn behind, and the Pierrot-like figure just half our size. The world is big; this poor boy, in playful and errant dress, powerless within it. We find ourselves feeling both intimately close to the harlequin and yet alienated by his withdrawn aspect and incongruous outfit, like one might feel stumbling into a fancy-dressed celebrant of a stag do without the party. It reminds me of lines from Window Pane, a poem by Derek Walcott, the late St Lucian poet who was a friend of Doig: “A sheet of stiff snow becomes a page for drawing / for Peter Doig and a ski slope his fiction, / a whiteness whose width demands exploring / in which the real looms, a contradiction.” Without doubt, this is a show of fiction crammed with contradicting realities.

Derek stands as a gorgeously elegiac testament to friendship

One of the highlights of the humble Doig takeover of the Courtauld can be found not in the main display room but the quieter one tucked away on the first floor, where his etchings made of, for, or in homage to, Walcott are on display. Most were made in 2017, the year Walcott died, and these diminutive gems speak to the roving nature of Doig’s artistic practice. They depict hunting dogs on the prowl and otherworldly plants sprawled out in spectral blacks and reds. Derek (Studiofilmclub) (2016) is a larger work in Doig’s more familiar materials of pigment on linen, and depicts the poet not at the page but by an easel, playing around on a canvas that bears the words “morning / paramin” (the name of a poem-painting collaboration the pair published the same year). As the verdant hills stretch off and beyond Walcott’s upcurved sun hat that radiates Baroque yellow, the work stands as a gorgeously elegiac testament to friendship.

To the left of the portrait is a lyric poem addressed to Doig by Walcott, called Peter, I’m Glad You Asked Me Along. In it, Walcott addresses the artist’s synaesthetic ability to conjure music with paint: “Will your brush pick up an accent, and singsong / infect your melody concealed in a canvas, / picking the place where you really belong.” The poem goes on to ask many more questions of its subject, but it is clear that Doig seems to have spent his entire career trying to work out where he belongs. Trinidad? Canada? London? Does he really belong alongside some of the best of Manet, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, those masters of colour who seem to be able to capture their subjects’ interior lives lost in a forsaken world? Perhaps not, or perhaps not yet. But while we wrestle with these questions, we cannot help but leave glad that Doig asked us along.

• Courtauld Gallery, London, until 29 May 2023, curator: Barnaby Wright

What the other critics said

In a short review for The Guardian, Rachel Cooke warned against seeing Doig’s famously seductive hues as any kind of salve for a long, late winter: “His vast canvases are not sun lamps for the soul.” Cooke was particularly enamoured with Alpinist, which “struck me as a masterpiece with the force of an avalanche; it should be owned by a great museum, not (as it is) by a private collector”.

Jackie Wullschläger, for the Financial Times, was particularly effusive about the artist’s ability to create strange new worlds, with flashes of Trinidad, London and the Alps all within the same series: “That he can make these spaces simultaneously convincing, enchanted and eerie has allowed Doig tremendous freedom and ambition.”

Meanwhile, in the Evening Standard Ben Luke (who is also a contributing editor at The Art Newspaper) gave a glowing five-star review and proclaimed Doig’s “magnificence among the masters”. While drawing attention to the fact that descriptions of Doig’s paintings might sound twee and sentimental, Luke enthused about how his surreal and vivid use of colour demonstrates that “few artists are painting so magnificently today”.

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