The Scottish-born artist Peter Doig, who often listens to contemporary Caribbean music or rhythm-and-blues while he works, took the back road to being an opera buff. Today he's best known for dreamy landscapes of hallucinatory intensity (one of which, White Canoe, sold at Sotheby's in 2007 for $11.3 million, breaking the record for work by a living European artist). But for eight years, while an art student in London during the 1980s, he worked as a dresser backstage at the Coliseum, home to English National Opera.
"It was a great job, because it gave you so much time to paint during the day," Doig says. "I could never say that I was an opera fan, but obviously I was exposed to a lot when I worked there. You almost took it for granted—you can imagine hearing opera six days a week, through the backstage sound system."
Memories of that experience came back to the artist when Gallery Met director Dodie Kazanjian first approached him about doing a show to coincide with Robert Lepage's new production of the Ring. For the Gallery Met show, called Siegfried and Poster Project, Doig created four paintings, each one based on an opera in the Ring cycle, as well as a large, horizontal canvas for the Grand Tier level of the lobby and a banner for the front of the house. The painter, whose images of rocky promontories or snowy cliffs have at times flirted with Romantic ideas of the sublime, says he's "more interested in the idea of landscape," than in depicting an actual location. "The land-scape serves to take the viewer into a world I want to create," he explains. For the painting at the top of the opera house steps, "I've been thinking about a cave," he muses, "but we'll see. It can't be an illustration, and you don't want it to say too much in a way. You want it to create atmosphere."
Doig's show at Gallery Met was the third installment in a series of four shows, each one tied to the new Ring production. It was followed by an exhibition of the painter Dana Schutz, known for her quirky and highly emotional reinterpretations of the human figure. "What's so great when you get artists of this caliber, young, but also in their prime," Kazanjian explains, "is to see where their minds go in tackling a subject that maybe they haven't thought about before."
Doig concurs. "The Ring has got such a mystique about it, and history, and people become obsessed with it. I'm not by any means a Wagner person, so it's a real challenge to take it in and give it an interpretation." —Leslie Camhi
Siegfried and Poster Project was on view in the 2011-12 season.
Peter Doig's Siegfried banner was
seen on the façade of the Met.
This article was first published in the Met's Season Book in September 2011.