Sweet Bowl was painted in the midst of a decade of optimism and increasing excitement in the London cultural scene. Fashion, cinema, literature, music and mass media blossomed and generated new modes of visual address. By 1966, the year the present lot was painted, Mary Quant had already inaugurated a revolution in women’s fashions and given the world the miniskirt. The British music explosion was well underway. The Beatles were major recording stars and the Rolling Stones were establishing their reputation as rock celebrities. Pop art, which had had its precursor in the 1950s Independent Group, was now at its height, and in architectural circles, members of the Archigram group were developing visions of a future derived from many of the same sources. Most significantly of all, social resolution saw London transformed into ‘Swinging London’. With its kaleidoscope of exuberant colour, everyday subject matter and innovative style, Sweet Bowl, at first glance, seems to fit perfectly into this moment in time.
Caulfield delighted in the most banal and even corny subject matter, so familiar as to pass largely unnoticed. To create something arresting from the most unpromising materials was perhaps the challenge that most inspired him. This focus on prosaic objects aligned Caulfield with many of Pop Art’s major proponents. However, from as early as his student days at the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones, Caulfield maintained an uneasy relationship with this movement. Whilst much Pop Art was born in relation to the languages of commerce and advertising that were sweeping the world from America during the 1960s, Caulfield’s works are tinged with nostalgia for past vernaculars. Defiantly at odds with many of his peers, he displays a confidence that relevant contemporary art could be made within a traditional art form abandoned by others. Thus, his subject matter can be understood not as popular culture but rather as grounded in European culture and history and the tradition of still life painting.
In search of a precise and detached formal language, the work of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and, above all, Juan Gris, provided valuable inspiration for Caulfield. He said: ‘What I like about Juan Gris’s work is not that he’s dealing with different viewpoints, it’s the way he does it. It’s very strong, formally, and decorative. Those are the results, rather that the idea of putting different viewpoints on a two-dimensional surface’ (Patrick Caulfield quoted in Patrick Caulfield Paintings 1963-81 (exh. cat.), Tate Gallery, London, 1981, p.15). There is no mistaking Caulfield’s painting for a Cubist work. However, there are similarities in the way in which his devices have been plucked from their original context and set flatly onto the surface of the canvas, thus negating their former function. In the present lot a bowl of sweets resting upon a table top functions as protagonist. Caulfield has pushed the subject through wistful, archaic filters, flattening and buckling its contours in a manner loosely evocative of his Cubist forbears. In simplifying the image Caulfield intensifies rather than reduces its potential for meaning.
The painter's surface and method of execution are entirely his own. There is both a self-effacing quality and a breath-taking confidence in his quest to remove any evidence of the painter’s mark in favour of flat planes of colour. He said ‘I wanted a very impersonal surface; I didn’t want any obvious brushstroke work that was visible. It was more like a sign-painter’s technique’ (Patrick Caulfield quoted in '"Chicken Kiev by Candlelight", Patrick Caulfield in conversation with Bryan Robertson', a tape (with accompanying slides) made in the series 'Artists Talking' by Lecon Arts. The tape is undated, but the Tate Archive records its copy as having been produced 'between 1988 and 1990'). Likewise, he chose ‘to paint on hardboard because it was cheap … an anonymous surface, the nearest equivalent to the wall’ (Patrick Caulfield quoted in Frances Spalding, Arts Review, 11th September 1981, p.404). The perfect paint surface, combined with the uniform hues bound by simple black outlines, the reductive geometries and subtly warped perspective imbued the painting with a sense of otherworldliness. The unlikely lushness of the colour, Caulfield himself pointed out, transforms an ordinary subject into something strangely extravagant. The painting offers a glimpse into a hyper-real alternative world held in an eternal moment of suspense. In spite of the loud riot of colour, a stillness and emptiness pervade the scene. Caulfield has an amazing ability to convey mood and emotion through conjunctions of seductive hue, colour harmonies and a deft sense of placement. At first glance, Sweet Bowl’s flood of blue and radiant jewel sweets are blatantly appetising, even celebratory, and it comes as a shock to realise that it also has a strange stillness that evokes a lonely, melancholy or distracted mood. Most viewers will find themselves pulled in opposite directions to the extremes of their own response. The enveloping atmosphere of lush colour leaves the viewer staring into the void.
Shortly after Caulfield's death, Howard Hodgkin wrote an article entitled ‘Remembering Patrick Caulfield’ for The Art Newspaper in which he championed Caulfield; ‘He was such a connoisseur of spaces where people gather for pleasure, such as restaurants and bars, and he managed to convey in his paintings the melancholy that can haunt such spaces – born of emptiness and artifice.’ (Howard Hodgkin, ‘Remembering Patrick Caulfield’, The Art Newspaper, no. 163, Nov. 2005, p. 37). Sweet Bowl is one of Caulfield’s early masterpieces. It reveals his skill as a painter of contemplation, emotion, and above all visual delight. In 1967, it was made into a screen print. The Tate Gallery, London has a version of this print in its collection.
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