Peter Doig, Canoe Lake, 1997, oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, Saatchi Gallery.
Although, according to Rainer Rochlitz, one of the most striking phenomena of the past few decades within the context of the visual arts has been the various exchanges between painting and photography, these exchanges were arguably taking place much earlier within the context of painting’s history.
Given the artistic, sociological and technological shifts that occurred during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it’s hardly surprising that an artist such as Edgar Degas would seek recourse to the possibilities afforded by the mechanically reproduced image. Such a fascination continued apace within the twentieth century to the extent wherein whilst different in terms of scope and import, what is notable is how Degas’s portrait of Princess Pauline de Metternich, based on a photograph taken of her in 1860 appears to have, at the very least, a certain visual affinity with Gerhard Richter’s Woman with Umbrella.
However, whilst Richter’s appropriation of the photographic image in 1964 arguably sought to eschew the autobiographical, an ambition that working with photography afforded, for those painters today who continue to use the photographic image the notionally personal and, moreover a more personally derived set of meanings doesn’t necessarily have to be entirely relinquished.
Certainly, whilst the paintings of Peter Doig often have as their basis photographic source material, it seems fair to say that this isn’t, unlike in the case of Richter, in order to ensure a depersonalised approach to the making of paintings and the generation of meaning. That said, one set of determinate meanings isn’t simply replaced by a different set. Rather, Doig’s canvases often oscillate between the known and the unknown, between what appears to be a recognizable image or scene and a certain indeterminacy that is nevertheless carried through any such reading. In this way, a painting such as Canoe Lake, (1997) is both nascent and vestigial. In other words, these are paintings of the not quite. Not quite immediately recognisable as a real person or event, although they often refer to one of the two. Even if, in the case of Canoe Lake, the ‘real’ person is the actor Adrienne King who, in this particular instance, was starring in the 1980 horror film Friday the 13th. And with regard to what has already been discussed, not quite autobiographical, although Doig often draws on his own experiences and memories to inform the work. Either way, and as the artist has claimed himself: ‘The photos I use aren’t always that interesting or distinguished. That’s deliberate – I like the fact that they’re bland: they leave a lot of space for invention.’ CS
Craig Staff is an artist and currently Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Northampton. His new book, After Modernist Painting, is a timely critical re-evaluation of the contested medium of painting over the last 50 years – despite being declared dead since the 1960s, it refuses to die.