How Peter Doig saw the night sky

It's Doig's 59th birthday - this is how he breathed new life into a celestial feature in his painting The Milky Way
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Mliky Way (1989-90) by Peter Doig, as reproduced in Universe
Mliky Way (1989-90) by Peter Doig, as reproduced in Universe

One of the remarkable aspects of Peter Doig’s work is the way he imbues landscape painting - viewed by some as perhaps the most staid and traditional practices in today’s art world, with a vivid liveliness that feels entirely contemporary. This is apparent whether the Scottish-born artist is painting a truck on a highway, a crowd exiting a concert hall, a boy standing on a lake, or, as in this case, a more distant sight: the galaxy of stars to which our Solar System belongs, the Milky Way.

“The jewel-like effects of the Milky Way hanging in the inky blackness of a star-studded sky are reflected in the placid water of a lake, barely disturbed by a lone figure in a canoe paddling beneath the exuberantly shaped and startling green trees on the distant shore,” we explain in our new book Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World. “Doig records how people actually see the Milky Way from Earth: not as billions of stars, but as a band of misty light, its irregular outlines and voids caused by clouds of cosmic dust blocking stars from our view.

 

Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World

“The horizontal bands give the painting a formal structure, while the vivid greens add a touch of hyper clarity that acts as a counterpoint to the eerie stillness, characteristic of Doig’s magic realism. At a time when many of his contemporaries were drawn to cool aesthetics and a conceptual approach to painting, Doig boldly embraced figurative landscape and the textural possibilities of the medium. Despite the surreal atmosphere, his work is based on the real world, whether direct observation or from photographs.

Milky Way fits into a long artistic tradition. Reflecting the night sky on a large expanse of water has been common in art since the first oil painting of the Milky Way known in Western art, Adam Elsheimer’s 1609 The Flight into Egypt, right up to today’s modern astrophotography.” And in a strange way, Doig's painting feels as up-to-date as any Hubble photograph. 

For more cosmic images by such varied star gazers as NASA, Andy Warhol, Picasso and Hergé order a copy of Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World here.


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