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Country-rock (wing-mirror) is a large representation of the famous Toronto culvert done in 1999 by international art superstar Peter Doig. (Sotheby's)
Country-rock (wing-mirror) is a large representation of the famous Toronto culvert done in 1999 by international art superstar Peter Doig. (Sotheby's)

Painting of Toronto rainbow tunnel expected to fetch millions at auction Add to ...

It is a site that has been seen and loved by millions of commuters in the Greater Toronto Area for decades. Now, an oil painting of it is poised to sell in England for millions of pounds.

The site is the famous rainbow tunnel near the eastern perimeter of the northbound Don Valley Parkway. The colourful flight of urban fancy has been there since 1972, painted by a 16-year-old self-described “caretaker of dreams” from Norway, Berg Johnson. He did it as a sort of guerrilla-action memorial to a friend named Sigrid who died in a crash on the Parkway a year earlier. “I thought [the tunnel] looked like a smile when you look at it from above,” he told a Toronto newspaper in 2012. When Sigrid was alive, Mr. Johnson would tell her that Torontonians never looked up, never smiled too much or responded to greetings. “So I wanted to make them smile.”

It is Sotheby’s auction house in London that likely will be grinning most beamishly on the evening of June 30. That’s when it’s putting up for the bidding Country-rock (wing-mirror), a large representation of the culvert done in 1999 by international art superstar Peter Doig. No official estimate range has been published for the 195-cm-by-270-cm urban pastoral, consigned by an unnamed collector who has held it since its creation. But according to one source, “It’s in the region of £9-million” – about $16.6-million (Cdn).

Few living artists are hotter than Mr. Doig, 55, sometimes called a “radical traditionalist.” Just last month in New York, Christie’s auctioneers sold another one of his paintings, 1991’s Road House, for nearly $12-million (U.S.), about $13-million (Cdn). This was a record for a work by the artist in the resale market, narrowly eclipsing the previous high of $11.89-million (U.S.) set just last year for another 1991 canvas, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine. Both Road House and The Architect’s Home are, in the words of an arts observer, “redolent” of Canada, where the Edinburgh-born Mr. Doig came with his parents in 1960 and lived for the next 19 years, mostly in Montreal, Quebec’s Eastern Townships and Toronto, before attending three art schools in the U.K.

Trinidad has been Mr. Doig’s primary home since 2002, its landscape informing much of his painting since. However, in the auction world, his dream-like Canadian-themed paintings – of canoes on lakes, of frozen ponds, ski hills, snow-bound dwellings – have had the most positive response in the auction market. “People have confused my paintings with being just about my own memories,” Mr. Doig told an interviewer in 2008. “Of course, we cannot escape these. But I am more interested in the idea of memory itself.” While the DVP tunnel is undoubtedly “charged with nostalgia for any resident of Toronto,” Mr. Doig uses it, in the words of Sotheby’s, “to conjure up a sense of general memory – of a fleeting snapshot filled with implication, but devoid of direct connotation.”

Mr. Doig has painted three vistas on canvas of the DVP rainbow from a highway perspective. But this is the only version to include a portion of the car providing that viewpoint in the picture frame and the first to be sold at auction. The first vista, painted in 1998-99 and housed in Copenhagen’s Ole Faarup Collection, was the cover image for the catalogue of Tate Britain’s famous 2008 Doig retrospective. The other, called Country Rock Version 2001-02, is in the collection of the Victor Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev.

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