Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume at Tate Britain: Look for the dark, empty spaces behind the technicolour exuberance

New exhibitions showcase two artists from different generations who had a lot in common when it comes to their use of colour and paint.

Patrick Caulfield/Gary Hume
Tate Britain, London SW1

The two London Tates have had a recent run of bright, brash and poppy: last year at Tate Modern there was the megawatt Damien Hirst retrospective, then this year’s cartoontastic Roy Lichtenstein show – two artists who will always have accusations of shiny superficiality flung in their direction. Now, at Tate Britain, are retrospectives of two British painters from different generations (Patrick Caulfield of the swinging Sixties; Gary Hume a Nineties Britart mainstay) who are linked by some of their subject matter and a knack of encapsulating their respective eras – but especially through their use of colour and paint.

With Hume’s unerring, and now famous, employment of household gloss paint and Caulfield’s abandonment of brushwork for the techniques of industrial sign makers, much of the splodgy stuff is, flatly, flat. But like Hirst and Lichtenstein, this overload of apparent shallowness is there to challenge us, not to tranquilise. These may be crowdpleasers, but scratch beneath the surface, the curators seem to be whispering, find the dark, empty spaces behind the technicolour exuberance. Or just revel in period-piece imagery that treads a fine line between kitsch and cool (Caulfield) or makes you do a double take at its darker humour (Hume). It’s OK to laugh.

The two shows run concurrently but separately so you can see them in either order. Being chronologically obsessed, I gravitated first towards the older artist (who died in 2005). In some ways, Caulfield’s work is like one big advert for the Sixties and Seventies. There are the faded retro colours, the groovy plastic furniture, the modernist apartment blocks and beach resorts (Santa Margherita Ligure, 1964), the platters of lurid foodstuffs, the lampshades, telephones and multicoloured vases (Pottery, 1969). It’s a walk through midcentury interior design, a journey into commodity and consumerism where the consumers are only notable by their absence and the objects they have collected.

As such, it’s social documentary as well – here’s an Indian restaurant in orange and red flock (Tandoori Restaurant, 1971), there’s a café with Austin Powers chairs and a wickercovered wine bottle (Café Interior: Afternoon, 1973). I’m reminded of the novel Les Choses (or Things: a Story of the Sixties) by the French writer George Perec, an account of a young couple, told entirely through the objects they possess, while they themselves remain strangely peripheral. It’s a brutal satire on consumer culture. Caulfield seems to suggest something similar – his semi-abstract, peopleless canvases with their blocks of colour have a Marie Celeste eeriness, as if the occupants have just left the room and turned out the lights (Dining Recess, 1972), stumbled woozily into a show (Foyer, 1973) or “stepped away from their desks” (Inner Office, 1973). Furniture is king. At other times we feel voyeuristic, peering up at a lit-up window with no blinds (Window at Night, 1969).

Elsewhere, Caulfield plays more obviously with notions of taste (or lack of it). A series of works in the Seventies and Eighties inserts photo-realist trompe l’oeil scenes or objects into otherwise monochrome canvases, such as in the cobalt blue After Lunch (1975), with its wonderfully tacky Alpine scene – the kind you used to get on the walls of Italian trattorias (and later, Nineties style bars).

In works such as Still Life: Maroochydore (1980-81), with its realistic paella and salade niçoise, we are straight into the realm of lurid 1970s recipe cards, where a lot of the food always looked unnaturally blue. But Still Life: Mother’s Day (1975) is elevated from naffness by its perfect balance of baby pink and blue, one rose and a sad telephone. Again, it strikes you that this could all be so bad if it was by another, inferior artist; as it is, except for some of his more overblown later work, this master draughtsman alchemises flock wallpaper and formica into something sublime.

Hume’s colour palette is similarly vivid, but, as befitting the era he comes out of – that Groovy fruit: Selected Grapes (1981) by Patrick Caulfield of Britpop, Kate Moss and postmodern irony – his wit is more barbed, his outlook more sceptical. And this is an older, more reflective Hume. Despite the sometimes overpowering expanses of gloss, his paintings are never static and lifeless. There is work on show spanning 20 years, from familiar early pieces such as Blackbird (1998) and the hilariously titled Tony Blackburn (1994) – a purply shamrock-like smudge bookended by black, pink and yellow – to recent work such as The Cradle (2011), a Hello Kitty-hued, manga-looking blancmange baby, and The Moon (2009), in which a cheerleader’s pom-pom-thrusting arm part obscures that celestial body.

To my mind, it’s Hume’s portraits that are most biting. Beautiful (2002) is a geometric celebrity mash-up, imposing Michael Jackson’s nose on the ghost of Kate Moss’s face on a big tangerine disc. Green Nicola (2003) presents a khaki-faced woman peering out from a curtain of straw-blonde hair: funny yet unnerving, like some sort of nightmarish mummer. A 2011 work, Anxiety and the Horse: Angela Merkel ambiguously presents the German chancellor as a wide-open yellow mouth attached to a frog-green visage: is this savage or affectionate, or are such readings irrelevant anyway?

Perhaps the one sculpture in the show encompasses Hume’s many-layered approach to portraiture. In Back of a Snowman we feel like we’re in a bad dream, constantly walking around trying to find its non-existent face. There is the sense of all of his figures being similarly obscured, out of reach, hiding.

The exhibitions run until 1 September

Café Interior: Afternoon, 1973 by Patrick Caulfield. Image: Tate

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times