The hidden Le Corbusier connection in Peter Doig’s landmark painting
As a child, Peter Doig visited the home of Eberhard Zeidler, situated in the wealthy Toronto suburb of Rosedale. This house is the stated inspiration of his masterwork – The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991) – which is going under the gavel on 7 March at Sotheby’s in London.
However, it’s commonly thought that the dark undertones of the work come from somewhere else altogether. According to Sotheby’s, ‘The eerie mood and the composition can be better traced to a celebrated Le Corbusier building, the Unité d’Habitation in Briey-en-Fôret in northeast France.’
In the summer of 1991 the Scottish painter visited the Unité d’Habitation (one of five housing projects constructed by Le Corbusier in France between 1947-53) which had been derelict since 1973, as part of a team of artists and architects working on its restoration. He was struck by the view of the modernist building from the thick, surrounding forest.
Doig references its brightly coloured panels that bedeck the front of the house, only just visible through the thickets – something missing from Zeidler’s home, which is typified by its glass and sandstone façade.
Like Zeidler’s ‘architect’s home in the ravine’, which he made for his family, Unité d’Habitation was a home too – on a drastically larger scale. Widespread destruction from the Second World War triggered an urgent need for accommodation in France, and Le Corbusier was commissioned by the government to demonstrate a new art of building to transform housing. Unité d’Habitation redefined high-density living by reimagining a city inside an 18-storey brutalist block.
Doig would refer back to the building repeatedly (and in more explicit terms) in the celebrated Concrete Cabin paintings (1992-1996). This conflation of physical experience and emotive recollection is typical of Doig – he is an artist of oneiric atmosphere whose works are more accurately defined as meditations on the concept of memory itself as they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of them.
Just as Unité d’Habitation has had a varied history so too has Doig’s representation of it. It was one of four works the artist chose to be included in the subsequent show at the Whitechapel Gallery, (where Doig was also named an Art Icon last year). Others include Iron Hill (1991), which became the first work by the artist to sell for over £1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2006, and Rosedale (1991), which established a new $28.8 million auction record for any living British artist last year.
On the back of these successes – and thanks to the story behind the subject matter – interest in the work is expected to be overwhelming. It sold for $12 million in 2012, and is predicted to reach £14 – £18 million in next month’s auction, where it will headline Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction.