What is the point of art? To look nice? To evoke a memory or provoke a feeling? Maybe there is no point. I would like to take you on the journey from Milky Way to enlightenment, courtesy of Peter Doig.
It begins in 1990 at Chelsea School of Art where Doig painted ‘Milky Way’ during his Masters course. Created with humble oil paints on canvas, this work measures 152cm by 204cm. What is initially striking about this piece is the use of colour. Doig’s depiction of the host to our stars brings the darkness to life. From the purple shadows leaks inky blues like aging biro stains. Doig gives an almost luminous quality to his plants and trees as though they have absorbed the light from the stars.
Many a critic has noted that Doig found influences in the Post Impressionist movement, specifically Gauguin. In ‘Milky Way’ there are electric colours and psychedelic shapes reminiscent of ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture – which would have engulfed Doig’s early teenage years- abound. Delving further beneath the stars you notice a small figure slumped over in a canoe. This is where we start to ask questions. Until now, this work of art has been beautiful and interesting. Now for depth. Why is the figure slumped? Does it matter? Peter Doig has previously said he painted the figure “as much for scale as atmosphere” but what kind of atmosphere? My mind pictures the river where Ophelia lay into her last breaths. The symbolism of her scene meaning that a life without honour is the biggest tragedy of all, bigger than death! ‘Milky Way’ is evocative not only of the internal struggle of the artist but the struggle of humankind to find a place in the universe. We strive to give meaning to life, to art, to everything. Does something decrease in value without meaning or purpose?
The point of art is to represent a moment in time. The point of art is to provoke a reaction. The point of art is to make people feel something. The point of art is whatever you need it to be. Everybody has an opinion about the meaning of art. The act of artistic expression is rooted to something, be it a feeling or an experience, but a painting only derives its meaning in the reaction a viewer has to it. The artist may have created it with a message in mind but, as most things are, this message is open to interpretation. Art simply exists without the necessity for understanding. If you don’t understand a work of art, does that make it any less beautiful?
We can attach our own explanation to anything. Ultimately, what art evokes in you is a personal journey. The plants depicted in ‘Milky Way’ make me think of the coral patterned sea-sky in Spongebob’s home of Bikini Bottom. Doig painted the plants partly based on the trees he could see from his parents barn where he had set up studio space. Doig uses the milky way and the canoe to make a statement about how small our human footprint is in the expansive dark that makes up the universe. Doig found his inspiration for star alignment from an astrological chart belonging to a fellow student. The small figure? I see the artist having an existential crisis at the mercy of the night sky. Like Ophelia’s drowning, I see the struggle between thought and heart. A helpless slump on an otherwise undisturbed surface leaves me with the understanding that the canoe has been motionless on the water for a long period of time. Perhaps the figure is sleeping, or dead.
Looking at Doig’s ‘Milky Way’ gives me a feeling of connectedness with other artists. I feel understood, represented and no assigned meaning will take that away from me. What is the meaning of art? Well, what you see is up to you.