"It seemed to me that Picasso had pulled the plug on interpreting the human form." The artist interviewed by Bryan Robertson in Exhibition Catalogue, London, Hayward Gallery, Patrick Caulfield, 1999, p. 26
In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Vues de Derrière Patrick Caulfield pays homage to Pablo Picasso, the progenitor of Cubism whose formal innovations and investigations of pictorial space so profoundly inspired the younger artist's own aesthetic. With characteristic visual wit, Caulfield rephrases Picasso's 1907 painting of Spanish prostitutes, a work which marked the beginning of Cubism and which is considered by many today to be the very cornerstone of Modernism. In Caulfield's painting, however, he reverses Picasso's image so that instead of viewing the women frontally, we peer at them from behind. Caulfield's unorthodox modification of his source is both a visual pun on the printing process - which reverses the original design - and a verbal pun on the French word derrière, which means rear end. Beyond this playful contrariness which is essential to the artist's spirit, however, Caulfield's painting packs a conceptual punch as the unexpected viewpoint forces us to reconsider the very act of looking at art.
A student at the Royal College of Art in the year below David Hockney, Caulfield became associated with a group of precocious British artists also including Richard Hamilton who were all united by a sophisticated Pop aesthetic. Pioneers of the Pop movement, their ideas were later inherited by Warhol and Lichtenstein and turned into the global phenomenon that we know today. However, while Lichtenstein was looking to the mechanical processes of mass-media image making to derive his benday dot technique, Caulfield derived his idiosyncratic mode of representational shorthand from Picasso. The older artist's use of linear reinforcements to transform flat shapes into convincing signs of three dimensional space takes on a sophisticated new life in Caulfield's work which treats the Demoiselles d'Avignon as a pop source like Campbell's Soup.
Painted almost four decades after he left art school, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Vues de Derrière reverentially shows Caulfield's indebtedness to his modernist forefathers. One of precious few direct appropriations from art history within his oeuvre, interestingly the present work echoes in his mature style a work made for his degree course at the Royal College titled Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, after Delacroix, 1963, now in the Tate Collection. This early work, executed the same year as Lichtenstein's Woman with Flowered Hat, was Caulfield's response to the prescribed transcription exercise, in which students were expected to transcribe an existing painting, showing a grasp of its composition while abstracting its formal qualities into an altogether new interpretation. Reversing the terms of the exercise, Caulfield's submission emphasised and clarified the image while neutralising the formal qualities so intrinsic to Delacroix, simplifying his painterliness into basic black outlines and flat colour plains. Caulfield never saw the original painting and only worked from a black and white photograph and so the resulting picture not only negates Delacroix's dexterity with the brush but also tempers his infamously sophisticated use of colour.
By contrast, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Vues de Derrière reveals a studied and mindful understanding of Picasso, and reads as a coda for everything that Caulfield's mature style owes to the twentieth-century master. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, with its shocking incoherence and outright sabotage of conventional representation, was the image that announced Cubism and is therefore a fitting paradigm for Caulfield's painting. In it, the bodies of the five prostitutes are built up of flat, splintered planes rather than rounded volumes. Space, instead of receding into the distance, seems to jut forwards, foregoing all pursuit of spatial depth and maintaining a close relationship to the pictorial surface. This, a key tenet of Cubism, reaches its apogee in Caulfield's signature style of flat coloured shapes. While in Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, after Delacroix there is still some vestiges of tonal gradation and modelling, particularly in his handling of flesh, by the time of present work he has perfected his skill at rendering space with purely flat, planar forms. With great economy, he restricts his palette to five colours, plus black and white. Picasso's already simplified forms are further schematised, reduced to interlocking shapes that create an insistently flat surface which simultaneously clarifies and abstracts the source image. In particular, the ambiguous background of Picasso's painting, which is given as much emphasis as the figures themselves, becomes an abstract matrix of blue and white which annuls any spatial recession.
Cubism sought to change the way we look at art and question the science of representation by abolishing single point perspective and condensing multiple viewpoints into a single image. In the present work Caulfield pushes this notion to its conceptual limit by adopting an impossible viewpoint, as if we are standing behind the painting looking into the space that we, the viewers, notionally inhabit. Picasso's solicitous ladies infamously stare out of his canvas, directly fixing their gaze on the viewer who unwittingly becomes a complicit voyeur, assuming the role of the client visiting the brothel. In Caulfield's painting, however, instead of seeing what the prostitutes see - their client and by implication us, the viewers - we see a mirror image of the ice-like abstract background found in Picasso's original. While the visual and verbal pun dissipates any overly theorised discourse on Picasso's inestimable contribution to art history, in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Vues de Derrière Caulfield is nonetheless intelligently confronting Picasso's spatial innovations in a playful yet intellectual fashion. The result is a stunning work in which we see one great artist confronting his mentor head on.
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