"Monet certainly comes to mind when contemplating Saint Anton (Flat Light), a 9½-foot-square canvas filled almost to the brim by the broad face of a snow-covered mountain. In its iridescence and improbable scale, the image succeeds in conjuring the exhilaration of space and light that make skiing such a spectacularly visual sport." Melissa E. Feldman, 'Peter Doig at Victoria Miro' in Art in America, September 1996
"The surface is an abstraction of the memory of being in a certain frame of mind under certain weather conditions and in certain places." The artist cited in Adrien Searle, et al., Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 14
When it was first exhibited in 1996, Saint Anton (Flat Light) was the centrepiece of Peter Doig's second solo exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, in which he exhibited a cohesive group of 'snow scenes' for the first time. Monumental in scale, Saint Anton (Flat Light) is one of the artist's largest and most iconic paintings of the mountain landscape, alongside Ski Jacket – today considered his masterpiece – which was acquired by the Tate at the time of Doig's nomination for the Turner Prize in 1994.
Snow and the mountain scenery of his native Canadian landscape had already featured heavily in Doig's work in the early 1990s, both as subject matter and in the material way he used oil paint, which he applied to the canvas in thick skeins of impasto to replicate the experience of a snowstorm. From his first paintings of snow, Charley's Space and Pink Snow (Museum of Modern Art, New York) which he painted in 1991, through Pond Life and Blotter (Walker Art Centre, Liverpool), both 1993 and Ski Jacket (Tate, London), 1994, there is a strong lineage of snow scenes in Doig's early work, to which the present work is heir. Saint Anton (Flat Light) combines elements from each of those blueprints into a single, masterful image – the frontal screen of falling snow, the pink, almost iridescent high-altitude light, the elevated horizon line and starkly flattened perspective and most significantly the thickly applied oil and richly variegated painted surface.
Although Ski Jacket explored the painterly possibilities of skiing, it was not until the Victoria Miro show in 1996 – called Freestyle – that the winter sport became a leitmotif in his work. Although an avid skier, Doig came across the subject matter for Ski Jacket almost by chance. Finding a black and white source image in a Toronto newspaper of a busy Japanese ski resort, Doig was drawn to the narrow image because of its similarity to a Japanese scroll. He enlarged, abstracted and replicated the grainy newsprint reproduction and found the subject to be an ideal vehicle with which to explore the abstract possibilities of paint. The success of Ski Jacket led to a more comprehensive elaboration of the theme in the 1996 paintings, in which man's presence in the landscape and the motif of skiing takes centre stage.
While in other works from the series, such as Orange Sunshine or Telemarker (Pas de Chevres), both 1996, a single skier or snowboarder is the focus of the foreground scene, in Saint Anton (Flat Light) Doig depicts the mountain expanse viewed from afar, adopting a flattened perspective reminiscent of Ski Jacket. Unlike the earlier work, Saint Anton (Flat Light) is based on a photograph that the artist took himself. When compared to the source image, we see that in the painting Doig has cropped the tips of his skis which protrude into the lower foreground. Significantly, this radically alters our perspective, because instead of being positioned on level ground, our viewpoint seems to hover vertiginously on the edge of a precipice which drops down into the valley below. As a result of the high horizon line and flattened perspective, the sense of distance is collapsed and the mountain vista which stretches out before the artist is compressed and condensed into the flat plane of the canvas. Poignantly, this is the 'flatness' which Doig's parenthesised title refers to, the 'flat light' of a cloud enshrouded mountain that every skier is familiar with, when our usual sense of perspective is rendered useless by fog. Doig says of these works, "I used the way that you perceive things when you are in the mountains; for example when you are feeling warm in an otherwise cold environment, and how the light is often extreme and accentuated by wearing different coloured goggles. I've used that as a way of accentuating the colours in the paintings, to the extent that they appear seemingly psychedelic". (The artist cited in Matthew Higgs, Peter Doig – 20 Questions, in Exhibition Catalogue, Vancouver, Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery, Peter Doig, 2001, p. 20.) Through clever painterly devices, Doig makes us somatically aware of the experience of being in the mountains: the white snow shimmers in iridescent hues, patches of ice appear purple and translucent and harbour the latent threat of injury, the entire scene – which at over nine-foot-square fills our entire field of vision – is flecked with reds and bright greens and blues, seeming improbable colours which nonetheless capture the mesmerising effect of sunlight when refracted through falling snowflakes.
Although working from a definitive source image, Doig layers his painting with meaning by reference to multiple sources, be they personal memories of his childhood in Canada, or allusions to the shared visual archive of our common psyche, by way of scenes from film and literature, popular culture and art history. Unlike his plein air forefathers a century before him, distance and detachment from his subject are essential prerequisites of Doig's studio-based practice which follows in the tradition of Gerhard Richter's photo-paintings of the 1960s. He says: "I tried to make a painting of the landscape en plein air, and I found it impossible to have either a focus or distance on that image... I use photographs simply as a way of imaging memory." (The artist cited in Matthew Higgs, Peter Doig – 20 Questions, in Exhibition Catalogue, Vancouver, Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery, Peter Doig, 2001, p. 18.) A vitrine which Doig exhibited alongside the paintings at the exhibition at the Belkin Gallery in 2001 shows a montage of images culled from various sources and offers an insight into Doig's highly innovative artistic process, in which an accidental splash of paint picked up in the studio can become an integral part of the source image to be repeated in the final painting.
In her review of the exhibition for Art in America in 1996, Melissa Feldman singled out Saint Anton (Flat Light), for its 'vast, abstract wilderness of surface incident and colour,' comparing Doig's handling of paint and light to that of Monet. Doig is a painter who is highly articulate in the history of painting, and himself concedes the important influence of his Impressionist forefather in relation to these works in particular: "When I was making the 'snow' paintings I was looking at Monet, where there is this incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour." (The artist cited in Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott and Catherine Grenier, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 132.) Yet Monet is only one of a canon of artists from all ages who Doig studies and emulates in his idiosyncratic painterly lexicon. Interestingly, one of Doig's favourite paintings is a work by Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1567, which serves as a formative influence on his treatment of snow and his technique in this painting in particular: "When you look at [Breugel's painting,] the snow is almost all the same size, it's not perspectival, it's the notion of the 'idea' of snow, which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it". (The artist cited in Judith Nesbitt, 'A Suitable Distance' in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 29.) The German Romatic painter Caspar David Freidrich is another seminal influence in Doig's visual repertoire. Friedrich succeeded in capturing the mighty power and expanse of nature in domestic-scale easel painting, exposing the transience and impotence of mankind in the face of the sheer power of vast mountain landscapes and turbulent weather. In Saint Anton (Flat Light), Doig exaggerates the scale so that even the viewer feels physically belittled by the monumental canvas, and any human element within the painting is reduced to an ant-like form. This approach offers alternative interpretations: do the minute human forms amplify the might of nature in the Romantic spirit, or does man's taming of the wilderness in Saint Anton as depicted by Doig, constitute an ironic subversion of the ideals of Romanticism?
Due to the flattened perspective, Saint Anton (Flat Light) also brings to mind paradigms of abstraction. While the treatment of winter light might be reminiscent of Monet's Impressionist masterpieces of the late Nineteenth Century painted in Argenteuil and Vétheuil, the paintings surface, built up of layer upon layer of pigment, recalls Monet's later, more abstract Nymphéas painted at Giverny. At times translucent, the oils seep and bleed into one another, at times running down the canvas in serendipitous arabesques. Elsewhere the surface positively glistens, where flecks of paint create a snowstorm that draws our eye back to the picture's surface, as in Breugel's painting. From afar, the line of trees which diagonally dissects the canvas is more redolent of Clyfford Still; in places the feathered edges evoke Rothko; elsewhere, the complexity of layers of paint superimposed and pulled away brings to mind Richter's abstracts; and flicks of the brush endow the surface with the spontaneity of Pollock. Just as the viewer becomes lost in the abstract qualities of the surface, a carefully placed skier in a bright red ski-suit draws our eye back to the representational nature of the scene. Doig mines the rich seam between abstraction and representation, borrowing liberally from the masters of both genres. Fundamentally this is a painting about painting, a post modern master class in the history of the medium. Meshing together photographic imagery with the lessons of art history, the sheer physicality of Doig's painting's surface combined with his overtly contemporary imagery signals his intention to continue the genre of landscape painting while substantially changing its representational and symbolic values.
Oil on canvas
London, Victoria Miro Gallery, Freestyle, 1996
Vienna, Kunsthalle, Alpenblick, Die zeitgenössische Kunst und das Alpine, 1997-98, p. 86, illustrated in colour
Kiel, Kunsthalle; Nürnberg, Kunsthalle, Peter Doig Blizzard Seventy-seven, 1998
275 by 275cm. 108 1/4 by 108 1/4 in.
Adrian Searle, et al., Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 117, illustrated in colour
Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1996