LONDON — Since its 2021 reopening after a £57m refurbishment, the Courtauld has mounted an impressive selection of exhibitions, including thoughtful and left-field studies such as Van Gogh: Self-Portraits and, most recently, the astonishing Fuseli and the Modern Woman. This programming clearly aims to put this under-appreciated London gallery firmly into the cultural mindset. With its new show of recent paintings by Scottish artist Peter Doig, it boldly muscles into Tate Modern territory by promoting new, cutting-edge work — so cutting edge that the paintings weren’t even finished a week before the opening. The relevance of one of the world’s most expensive living artists to the Courtauld’s famed Impressionist-heavy collection is established with some very careful wording in the press release. Stopping short of claiming that the collection “influenced” Doig (which would require stylistic analysis), it states:
Doig has long admired the collection of The Courtauld Gallery. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists who are at its heart have been a touchstone for his own painting …. Visitors will be able to consider Doig’s contemporary works in the light of paintings by earlier artists in The Courtauld’s collection that are important for him, such as those by Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Van Gogh. The exhibition will explore how Doig recasts and reinvents traditions and practices of painting to create his own highly distinctive works.
Unfortunately for Doig, yet good for the Courtauld, the paintings only underscore the brilliance of the museum’s permanent collection. Where Impressionists ingeniously sculpted with color to create luminous, shimmering scenes of dappled light and depth, Doig’s modern palette is muted, with muddy washes layering his surfaces. His linearity and flat color blocks decidedly compress his compositions, which is understandable given that he uses photographs, postcards, and album covers as starting points. If anything, he has more in common with the painting style of Francis Bacon: relatively flat surface patterns, occasionally bisected with grids, and impasto strokes cutting across the muddy washes.
There is a distinct naiveté to Doig’s linearity; his draughtsmanship wavers in accuracy — for instance, the floating musical instruments that defy all natural physics in “Music Shop” (2019–23) or the shapeless bodies populating “Night Bathers” (2011–19) seem uninterested in reflecting reality. This illustrates a fundamental difference in intent from the Impressionists: While the former depicted real scenes and objects dialed up to an almost hyperreal point, Doig captures intangible, dreamlike landscapes and imaginings. In this sense, it is unfair to compare his work to the Courtauld’s collection. He himself has said doing so sets him up for a beating. A case in point is his “Bather” (2019–23), in which a boy stretching the full height of a monumental canvas faces us frontally. According to the caption, the image derives from a photograph of actor Robert Mitchum posing on a beach in 1942. Fair enough: a quick Google search confirms the pose and swim trunks as near identical. It also states that the “subject recalls the male bathers of Paul Cézanne.” While it shows a bather and its hue is vaguely pastel blue, the two are otherwise incomparable. The captioning is sneaky; it’s not the “painting” that recalls Cézanne, but the “subject” — bathers in general.
The gallery setting also does Doig no favors. These enormous paintings are crammed into two small rooms adjacent to the main galleries, with comparatively low ceilings. This prevents visitors from standing back to view them properly (or taking flat-on photos for this review). Given that high-ceilinged rooms on the same floor have been used for exhibitions in recent memory, it’s possible that a sponsorship stipulation (the show’s full title includes the sponsor bank Morgan Stanley) relegated the work to the smaller British billionaire Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries.
Doig’s preparation time for the show is also worth considering. Bar one painting, “Canal,” dated 2023, the works were completed in 2019–23 or 2015–23. If the Courtauld is taking advantage of Doig relocating from his long-term home of Trinidad to London in 2021, the dates suggest that he might have ransacked his studio and reworked some pieces specifically for the show.
This is not to categorically proclaim: historic art good; contemporary art bad. Far from it. As the press release does note, “Doig recasts and reinvents traditions and practices of painting to create his own highly distinctive works,” and indeed he occupies his a significant role in contemporary painting that stands alone in its own right. Yet by insinuating that he was directly influenced by its collection, inviting visitors to “consider Doig’s contemporary works in the light of paintings by earlier artists in The Courtauld’s collection that are important for him,” it has shoehorned him into an agenda that promotes the museum’s relevance at the artist’s expense.
Ticket-sales-wise it seems to have worked, though, as the show was packed when I visited, in contrast to the relatively thin crowd at the exemplary study on Fuseli. Perhaps this is due to the rarity of Doig’s insanely expensive work being shown in the UK (i.e., not holed away in private collections or exposed briefly when being sold at auction). From a purely business perspective the Courtauld’s gumption is admirable, yet the pressure it puts on Doig almost calls for sympathy as it pits him against exemplary Impressionist works — the main draw of its collection — perceived by many as untouchable.
The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Peter Doig continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, the Strand, London, England) through May 29. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Barnaby Wright.