‘I have been haunted by that painting [Les demoiselles d'Avignon] throughout my life and I needed to exorcise the ghost’ - P. Caulfield
A bold and playful homage to one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th Century, Patrick Caulfield’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Vues de Derrière, 1998 is the original design for the largest and final screenprint of the artist’s career, as well as a major acrylic on canvas painted later in 2000, formerly owned by Charles Saatchi. Taking Pablo Picasso’s early masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Caulfield has playfully reimagined this painting, reversing the composition so that the five, brazenly nude women – considered to be prostitutes in a Spanish brothel – that defiantly meet the viewer’s eye in the original work are instead viewed directly from behind. The angular, highly stylised bodies of the women, their forms defined with streaks of red and black, are rendered with an unmodulated peach tone that contrasts with the bright, saturated facets of blues and reds that constitute the setting of this dramatic interior scene. The title of the present work – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Vues de Derrière (‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, viewed from behind’) – is not only a reference to the process of printing, which flips the original image, but humorously plays on the subject of the painting itself with a verbal pun: the French ‘derrière’ meaning ‘bottom’. One of Caulfield’s most enduring images, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Vues de Derrière embodies the complex, multi-faceted and constantly evolving dialogue that the artist maintained with the art of the past throughout his prolific career, a bold and definitive final statement that confronts and interacts with a painting he had long admired.
In taking one of the most renowned paintings of the Modernist canon and appropriating it into his own image, Caulfield was continuing a practice that he had begun in his days as a student in the 1960s. From the beginning of his career he had often looked back to admired artists and paintings of the early 20th Century, as well as those from previous eras. One of the earliest examples of this practice came in 1963, when, as a project while studying at the Royal College of Art, Caulfield transcribed Delacroix’s Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux) from a black and white reproduction. Never having seen this painting in the flesh, nor even a colour image of it, Caulfield transformed the composition into his own style, flattening the vigorous brushwork for which Delacroix is renowned, and replacing it with planes of unmodulated, and perhaps most crucially, invented and imagined colour. As a result, Caulfield created a recognisable yet significantly altered painting, highlighting the inherent construction of the composition and the visual effect of the image itself. ‘My idea was to just copy the painting’, Caulfield explained of this work, ‘but to make it even more positive than it was, to emphasise the image, not the compositional link-ups…’ (P. Caulfield, quoted in M. Livingstone, Patrick Caulfield Paintings, Aldershot, 2005, p. 32). The same concept is exemplified by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Vues de Derrière. Caulfield has emphasised the major visual impact of Picasso’s original painting, both the radical style and the shocking subject matter. ‘It seemed to me’, Caulfield explained in an interview in 1998, the same year that he executed the present work, ‘that Picasso had pulled the plug on interpreting the human form’ (P. Caulfield, quoted in ‘Patrick Caulfield: a Dialogue with Bryan Robertson’, in Patrick Caulfield, exh. cat., London, 1999, p, 26). Simplifying and reducing the composition to a pattern of interlocking, angular facets of flattened colour, Caulfield retains the striking angular construction of the female figures, accentuating their stylised forms. Yet, by directly reversing the composition, he confounds the viewer’s previously held expectations and knowledge of the work, creating an image that is completely his own. ‘I liked the fact that you took as a starting point something that so many people knew about’, Caulfield once explained, ‘It’s the “shock” of the familiar’ (P. Caulfield, quoted in M. Livingstone, ibid., p. 33).
Caulfield had long admired Picasso and particularly Cubism, a movement that had completely revolutionised centuries-old tradition, deconstructing pictorial illusionism and the conception of painting as a ‘window of the world’ by incorporating multiple viewpoints into a single picture. Throughout his career, Caulfield had similarly played with conceptions of pictorial space, painting representational compositions that play with reality, subverting convention, and revealing the artifice inherent in painting. Just as Picasso redefined the parameters of pictorial space in his 1907 work, shattering an illusionistic rendering of a three-dimensional setting, Caulfield has, with playful humour, built on this. By depicting the five nude women from behind, Caulfield has quite literally played with pictorial viewpoints. The viewer is now situated in another part of the fictional interior, regarding the scene from the back instead of from the front, positioned amongst the female figures as they stand, theatrically posed to greet their next customer.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Vues de Derrière is the final design that Caulfield created for a screenprint of the same name. For his prints, the artist chose to produce a full-sized, highly detailed, finished painting that could be exactly replicated in the printmaking process. By choosing such an iconic image of modern art as the basis for his print, Caulfield has subverted the reverence with which the original work is usually viewed, translating Les Demoiselles d’Avignon into a depersonalised medium, one which can be multiplied and reproduced endlessly. In so doing, Caulfield undermined the dramatic stylistic innovations for which the original is best known – gone are the expressive, angular brushstrokes that Picasso used to depict the fragmented forms, and in their place, Caulfield’s flat planes of saturated colour that show no trace of the artist’s own hand. While Picasso’s work was an expressive, highly individualistic statement that heralded an entirely new visual language, Caulfield, in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Vues de Derrière, cleverly challenges this, creating a work that is anonymised, yet which loses none of the visual immediacy that is associated with the original painting.