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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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition