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.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.