The Uncanny Undertow of the Passing Show of Life

Paintings by Patrick Caulfield


“The beautiful is a confused mixture of ‘pleasure and sadness; conveys an idea of melancholy, of lassitude, even of satiety – a contradictory impression, of an ardour, that is to say, and a desire for life together with a bitterness which flows back upon them as if from a sense of deprivation and hopelessness.”[1]

This view on beauty was once expressed by the famous French poet Charles Baudelaire. Even though he had passed away long before, he could have been talking about the beauty in the works of the English painter Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005).

Caulfield used to paint rather familiar and normally pleasant scenes, like dinner gatherings, but by the formal way he approached them, they leave the viewer with an uncomfortable feeling. For this reason, Wallis, the curator of his exhibition at Tate Britain[2], writes justly: “The convivial interiors – hotel foyers, restaurants and pubs – take on a cool, detached atmosphere, which is achieved through a conspicuous absence of human presence and by containing the objects within fixed, rigid lines.”[3] The result of rendering the familiar unfamiliar – of making ‘das Heimliche’ ‘Unheimlich’, as shall be discussed later – is an uncanny tone and feeling, prevailing in most of his works of art.

Interestingly, there has never been an article devoted to this specific feeling of uncanniness evoked in the paintings of Caulfield. In this essay I would like to take a first step in this direction, by looking at some of the key characteristics of his work and how they developed over time in respect to the uncanny. Then I will compare these outcomes with the uncanny work of American painter Edward Hopper and American photographer Gregory Crewdson. But first, a more theoretical deepening of the concept ‘uncanny’ is needed, to avoid all ambiguity about the used terms.


The German term ‘das Unheimliche’, the uncanny, was first introduced by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in his essay “On the psychology of the uncanny” (1906). He endorses the meaning the uncanny has been given in dictionaries, writing that “without a doubt, this word appears to express that someone to whom something ‘uncanny’ happens is not quite ‘at home’ or ‘at ease’ in the situation concerned, that the thing is or at least seems to be foreign to him.”[4] Jentsch then goes on to comment on this, being especially interested in how the feeling of uncanniness arises psychologically. He states that one of the most decisive factors is the so-called ‘intellectual uncertainty’, meaning the uncertainty arising when a person doesn’t feel at ease and oriented.[5] The example he uses – and afterwards is most commonly used in secondary literature – to demonstrate this, is the doubt about whether or not an object is animate.[6]

Nearly a decade later, in 1919, Sigmund Freud wrote his famous essay “Das Unheimliche”, translated in English as “The uncanny.” Referring to the essay of Jentsch, he states that his concepts are not precise enough. His general definition of the uncanny is nevertheless quite similar: “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”.[7] So what Freud is adding to the commonly accepted idea of the uncanny being something known rendered strange, is that the experience of this once familiar thing also brings with it a sense of terror and creeping horror. Further he was also interested in the processes giving rise to uncanny feelings. According to him these could be processes of recurrences of something known, or processes of repressing the once familiar.[8] But maybe more interesting are two remarks he made, seemingly not that important. First off, he briefly mentions that uncanny effects are often evoked “by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality”[9], thus blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. Secondly, he states that there are more ways to produce uncanny effects in fiction, like literature. But one might add to that this is the case in all fictional works, what Freud called “imaginative productions” [10], including works of art.

But now, is the uncanniness the viewer might find in the work of Caulfield in line with these definitions and psychological theories on the uncanny?


Truth to be told, when I first laid eyes on Caulfield’s paintings, I had never heard of his name before. Lacking any knowledge and prejudices, I open-mindedly wandered around the rooms, and became more and more fascinated by the colourful works on the walls. At first sight they seemed pretty straightforward to me, although I did immediately feel a certain mood floating through the air – albeit not at all the same mood of visual aggressiveness Spalding reports in her review of his paintings.[11] It was only after spending more time with the works of art, I started to notice what that mood precisely was, and why it was that I felt it. Slowly the defining uncanny characteristics of Caulfield’s work became apparent to me, especially while looking at Happy Hour (1996), one of his later works.

Of course the first thing one notices is the subject matter. In Happy Hour the viewer sees the interior of a bar, a glass of wine, a light shade and an exit sign. The title is quite ironic – as are many of his paintings – since it refers to the time of day when the drinks are cheaper, but here there are no customers. The empty bar is a particular modern phenomenon.
This theme dominates Caulfield’s work and it is what he probably is most known for. He constantly engaged with the contemporary, urban, everyday experience; leading to his “vibrant paintings of modern life which reinvigorated traditional subject matter such as landscape, interiors and the still life.”[12] The still life is an interesting choice, since for centuries still lives were thought of as allegories of some kind of moral order.[13] Hence, one could argue Caulfield’s still lives are a representation of the moral order of the society he lived in; Happy Hour could be a sign of the emptiness modernity has brought.

But also of the loneliness modernity has brought, because even though there are no persons depicted, the viewer can feel the atmosphere of a near abandoned bar, where lonely souls gather together to drink – almost like the drunkard in the French story Le Petit Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, who states that he drinks to forget and then he drinks more to forget that he drinks. Caulfield never paints people – except for the painting of Juan Gris and the waiter in After Lunch (1975) – which was a conscious decision. [14] Nevertheless there is always a suggestion of human presence, like something just happened or is about to happen.[15]

In line with this, a relevant and interesting comparison can be made with theatre: the settings depicted in Caulfield’s painting look like stage sets without actors, which makes these non-events, these moments frozen in time, potentially dramatic scenes. This makes even more sense, considering Caulfield’s interest in theatre – he even constructed stage sets for pantomimes – and in the very theatrical sets of film noir.[16]

In short; precisely because of the fact that the depicted scenes are unpopulated, whilst they are intrinsically convivial and domestic settings, and they appear to be frozen moments, moments ‘in between’, the uncanny feeling prevails.

Besides the discussion of subject matter, there are also more formal characteristics which contribute to a sense of uncanniness.

Firstly, his use of colour really stands out; the vibrant colours reflecting a mood, rather than aiming for naturalistic representation. The red and brownish tones of Happy Hour evoke the sense of a somewhat dated, shabby looking pub, with wood on the walls and red velvet cushioned chairs. In another work of his, Bishops (2004), the deep purple colours are perhaps cooler, and are definitely in stark contrast with the yellow of the lampshade. Further in Bishops it can also be seen how Caulfield chooses to highlight some elements, like the lampshade, and blends the rest with the backdrop, using the same or slightly nuanced colours. This also enhances the uncanniness of the space; it is hard to recognise at first how the room is organized and which different elements are in place.

Another aspect which is important is the size of the works. Caulfield’s interiors, like Bishops, are very much ‘room-size’.[17] So it seems as if the viewer is able to enter the scenes – which makes sense, thinking back to the theatre metaphor aforementioned. The viewers could thus become the actors in the scenes; the lead actors, or in a different interpretation, spies or intruders – maybe voyeurs even – in scenes which are already happening. This gives rise to a very uncomfortable, obscure feeling, not knowing what to do or to think of it.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly for the uncanny tone of his work, Caulfield uses different techniques to distort our sense of space and reality. Associated with the colours, Wallis writes justly: “However, irrespective of whether an object is depicted in the foreground or the background, the evenness of the line is the same so that it rather denies the illusion of space, despite representing it.”[18] As mentioned above, the size also plays with our idea of space, seemingly enabling the viewer to enter.

Another way of distorting our view is the use of different painting styles, a more technical aspect of his work. By employing styles ranging from impersonal sign painting to photorealistic renditions (of for example flowers) Caulfield plays with our idea of what is real and what is not: “By bringing such disparate styles together, Caulfield may be inviting us to consider how we decode or understand different pictorial languages.”[19]

He no longer paints an object in a way that matches an image already existing in our head, by which we recognise it in the first place. Crucial for this is his use of light and shade. In Caulfield’s last work, Braque Curtain (2005), this is perhaps most apparent. Caulfield plays with the use of lights and shades hence making it difficult for the viewer to discern what is real, what the shadow is and how the space is organized, with seemingly reflections and/or shadows everywhere. The stark contrast here between the black colours, the bright Braque-style patterned curtain and the orange-red tones could be reminiscent of the contrast in film noir as well. But light and shades are not just techniques or tricks, they are part of the totality of the work, forming geometric shapes which define the viewed space.[20] His mastered use of this technique enables him to further investigate in the specific moods he wants to evoke, into the suggested drama that could be taking place in the scenes; in other words, it enables him to heighten the uncanny effect.

To sum up, the discussed distortions compromise our sense of belonging somewhere, and render familiar scenes unrecognisable. Caulfield himself once said in an interview that “I feel free to invent any contortions of space as long as they work for me.”[21] Hence, it makes sense familiar settings become weird, because the distortions, before expressing them on the canvas, existed only in Caulfield’s head.

However, his masterful renditions of modern life scenes, completed with consciously made decisions about formal characteristics, which were to enhance the mood of the painting, were not made continuously over time. As with many artists, the work of Caulfield evolved during his career; in the last decades – also the period in which the examples mentioned so far are made – however, his work bearing more uncanniness than in the beginning of his career.[22]
Caulfield left high school at the age of fifteen and only five years later, in 1956, he started to study at the Chelsea Art School. Again a couple of years later, in 1960 he got accepted by the Royal College of Art, where future famous British pop artists such as Hockney and Kitaj were already studying.
Since he participated in the exhibition “Young Contemporaries” in 1961 he was commonly associated with this British pop movement. This was a label he would resist during his entire career, but it is hard to deny the formal similarities his early work shares with that of the pop artists. One only has to look at Pottery (1969) or Ruins (1964) to notice the bright, popping colours, the strong outlines of the depicted objects (giving them something almost cartoonesque) and in general the highly stylised, impersonal way of painting with commercial paints that don’t leave brush marks.[23] These works don’t share the pop artists’ optimism of a new age, nor their newly found inspiration in America and the rising popular consumerism – but they’re not uncanny either.
The uncanniness only begins to take form in the seventies, when Caulfield starts experimenting with different styles (such as photorealism), scales, lighting and architectural subject matters. The paintings made in this period are often very complexly layered, something he steps away from in the eighties. Since then until the end of his career, Caulfield simplifies his paintings again, leaving out the strong black outline – there is none in the three first examples shown – in favour of playing with light and shades and even more contrasting colours.

But Caulfield’s paintings are more than purely the sum of these parts; it is all about the mood of the work of art as a whole; “das Unheimliche” the works evoke. The British abstract painter Gordon Hogdkin once noted about 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 places – born of emptiness and artifice.”[24] In this quote the words of Baudelaire resonate; the combination of pleasure and sadness are central for the correct understanding and valuation of Caulfield’s art. In this sense the work of Caulfield is also clearly in line with the definition given to the uncanny in dictionaries, agreed upon by both Jentsch and Freud. It does seem to differ, in the way that the uncanny feeling doesn’t include terrifying aspects or references to death. Unless one interprets his works of art as the uncanny passing of time, the passing show of life, until death. His work Rust never sleeps (1996) seems to support this point of view. The viewer again sees an empty (part of) a restaurant, maybe a table in a corner, somewhat tucked away out of sight. The suggested presence of a loner, wasting his time there, or even the empty restaurant, decaying in the wait for customers – the rust never stopping to damage the restaurant – could refer to “time in the passage towards a common mortality.”[25]

This is especially true for the more uncanny later paintings, and maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, considering Caulfield suffered cancer and was aware of his own approaching death when he was making these last works of art. The works then revolve much more about the issue of the common fate of all people to one day die. Especially Caulfield’s still lives could now be interpreted as ‘memento mori’, referring very explicitly to their original use. But referring to art history wasn’t Caulfield’s purpose, more just is probably Hare’s statement in his personal article about his friendship with Caulfield: “[…] he wants to show us the haunting unknowability of the environment in which human beings have to spend their lives.”


Still, Caulfield wasn’t the only one depicting this environment. Probably one of the most renowned twentieth-century American painters did exactly the same, way before. Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was an American realist painter, and although Caulfield wasn’t drawn to the new American (visual) culture, he did acknowledge the influence Hopper had on his works of art. When looking at the resemblances, they are striking.

Both artists were interested in the contemporary city life as subject matter in the form of landscapes, interiors and urban settings. Hopper said he was inspired by the work of the French painters Degas and Manet who also depicted “modern urban life”. [26] Here it could be considered striking how the terminology recurs, but even more so is the next quote from the Metropolitan Museum website about Hopper’s paintings being “all pervaded by a sense of silence and estrangement. His chosen locations are often vacant of human activity, and they frequently imply the transitory nature of contemporary life.”[27] Exactly the same could be said of Caulfield’s work. Furthermore both Hopper and Caulfield were intrigued by the use of light and shadow – especially in Caulfield’s later works, his mastered use of this technique reminds a lot of Hopper’s influence on him.[28] They also shared the prevalence of moods in their paintings, with special attention to the uncanny mood – although in Hopper’s paintings melancholy, sadness is maybe more predominant than in Caulfield’s, which play with distortion and unfamiliarity. The theatre-metaphor is also applicable to Hopper’s work, investing the rather desolate, time-frozen settings with potential drama.[29]

Of course a big difference is the actual presence of human beings in Hopper’s work. But it could be argued that they are isolated, not communicating and tend to be more some kind of props on the scene. They do not play an active part in the depicted scene, and thus don’t alter the significance of the uncanny all that much.

In the work of the contemporary American photographer Gregory Crewdson they do. In his photographs of American suburban settings the uncanny is unmistakably present, but in a rather different way than in the work of Caulfield and Hopper.

His photographs tend to consist of one or more truly creepy elements, making them more in line with the Freudian view of the uncanny. In Untitled (Birth) (2007) the viewer sees a woman sitting on her bed, only to see a few moments later the baby lying there as well, naked, not being comforted by his mother, with all the windows and doors open while it appears to be freezing outside. The grey-ish tone of the picture even reinforces the bleak, ominous scene of which the viewer is a witness – leaving him feeling very uncanny. Another difference is of course the medium – Crewdson doesn’t paint. But even though the medium is different, Crewdson plays with what is real and what is not, just like Caulfield. Photography has long been considered purely capturing reality, but Crewdson photographs are so extensively staged – just like Caulfield’s paintings are very composed – that they play with our sense of reality and illusion.

But there are of course more similarities. He as well depicts time-frozen contemporary (sub)urban scenes, sometimes in very domestic, intimate and familiar settings, filled with loneliness, sadness and uncanniness. Even to him, lighting is crucial – highlighting what he wants to be seen. And also in his works the viewer makes up a narrative of what is going on – like in the works of Caulfield and Hopper. Just as you complete the Mother’s Day story, knowing the telephone in Caulfield’s Still Life: Mother’s Day (1975) won’t ring; just as you know the people in Nighthawks (1942) have no place they necessarily need to be and so you start to develop their life stories; just like that you know there has been a fight in Crewdson’s Untitled (2005) and you start to think of reasons why.

Some differences and similarities are recapped by Crewdson, stating in an interview: “I’m interested in the question of narrative…this idea of creating a moment that’s frozen and mute, that perhaps ultimately asks more questions than it answers…that allows the viewer to, in a sense, complete it. Ultimately, I’m interested in this ambiguous moment that draws the viewer in through photographic beauty, through repulsion, through some kind of tension.”[30]

So a lot of elements are recurrent, but as always, the necessary nuance is vital for a correct understanding of the works of art.


In this essay I have tried to show how Patrick Caulfield’s work is imbued with uncanniness. I have first discussed the meaning of the term, before further investigating how this sense of the ‘Unheimliche’ is evoked in his paintings. He mainly achieved this by depicting unpopulated, familiar settings of contemporary urban life, in a distorted way through techniques involving colour, outlines, size, styles and lighting. This however is not true for his entire oeuvre, as I have pointed out that mainly his later works are uncanny. The uncanny is usually not specifically in line with Freudian conceptions of the term, unless Caulfield’s (especially later) work is interpreted as ‘memento mori’. Further I have compared Caulfield’s work with that of Hopper, with which it shows great resemblance, and with that of Crewdson, which takes another uncanny stance, more in line with Freudian views.

To finish off, this essay also would like to be a plea for more thoroughgoing research in the area of the uncanny in the art of Patrick Caulfield in this respect. The artist not so long ago unknown to me, has really captured me. Like Wallis says: “Caulfield’s ability to animate interior spaces to elicit an atmosphere, to suggest a sense of place shot through with emotional resonance, runs through the majority of his work. With extreme subtlety and finesse, Caulfield explores paradoxes of presence and absence, transience and permanence and the uncanny mix of pleasure and unease encountered in modern life.”[31]

Could there be anything more fascinating?


Caulfield - Happy Hour (1996) Saatchi website
Caulfield, Happy Hour (1996)
Caulfield - Bishops (2004) Tate website
Caulfield, Bishops (2004) ©The estate of Patrick Caulfield
Braque Curtain 2005 by Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005
Caulfield, Braque Curtain (2005) ©The estate of Patrick Caulfield
Pottery 1969 by Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005
Caulfield, Pottery (1969) ©The estate of Patrick Caulfield
Ruins 1964 by Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005
Caulfield, Ruins (1964) ©The estate of Patrick Caulfield
Caulfield, Still Life: Mother’s Day (1975)
Caulfield - Rust never sleeps (1996) Saatchi website
Caulfield, Rust Never Sleeps (1996)
Hopper - Nighthawks (1942) ibiblio
Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)
Crewdson - Dinner
Crewdson, Untitled (2005)
Crewdson - Birth
Crewdson, Untitled (Birth)” (2007)

[1] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.50

[2] TATE, Patrick Caulfield Exhibition, website consulted July 22, 2013

[3] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.52

[4] JENTSCH, “On the psychology of the uncanny”, p.8

[5] Ibidem, p.8, 15

[6] Ibidem, p.11

[7] FREUD, “The Uncanny”, p.1-2

[8] This second process being more in line with the idea of the ‘Unheimliche’ as a logical continuation of the ‘Heimliche’, since the ‘Heimliche’ has both the meaning of belonging to the home, but also of something which is kept secret. FREUD, “The Uncanny”, p.4

[9] Ibidem, p.15

[10] Ibidem, p.18

[11] SPALDING, “London. Caulfield at the Tate Gallery”, p.695

[12] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.7

[13] Ibidem, p.37

[14] Ibidem, p.41

[15] Ibidem, p.41; SPALDING, “London. Caulfield at the Tate Gallery”, p.696

[16] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.45; HARE, My friendship

[17] WALLIS, Caulfield, p. 41; SPALDING, London. Caulfield at the Tate Gallery, p.695

[18] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.47

[19] Ibidem, p.40

[20] Ibidem, p.94

[21] Ibidem, p.95

[22] The biographical information in the next paragraph is mainly derived from: WALLIS, Caulfield and TATE, Patrick Caulfield, website consulted July 22, 2013

[23] This impersonal way of painting he would drive further, by producing huge silk prints.

[24] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.29

[25] Ibidem, p.81

[26] METROPOLITAN MUSEUM, Edward Hopper, website consulted July 24, 2013

[27] Ibidem

[28] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.93

[29] SMITHSONIAN MAG, Edward Hopper, website consulted July 25, 2013

[30] WHITSON, Haunted Spaces, p.33

[31] WALLIS, Caulfield, p.99



BRACEWELL, Michael, “Patrick Caulfield”, Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 12, 2005, p.28-34

CUMMING, Laura, “Patrick Caulfield/Gary Hume: review”, The Guardian, June 6, 2013

FREUD, Sigmund (translated by Alix Strachey), “The Uncanny” [Das Unheimliche, 1919], Sigmund Freud Collected Papers, 4, New York, 1959

HAMILTON, Adrian, “Art Review: Patrick Caulfield, Tate Britain, London”, The Independent, June 11, 2013

HARE, David, “My friendship with Patrick Caulfield”, The Guardian, May 25, 2013

“Het wereldmuseum van de kunst”, Ludion, Antwerpen, 2012, zaal 368 (Edward Hopper)

JENTSCH, Ernst (translated by Roy Sellars), “On the psychology of the uncanny” [1906], Angelaki, 2, 1, 1996, p.7-21

LAWSON, Thomas and LEWIS, Katherine, “Waiting, thinking, drinking: a conversation about Patrick Caulfield’s interiors”, Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 12, 2005, p.18-27

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, Edward Hopper,, consulted July 24, 2013

SMITHSONIAN MAG, Edward Hopper,, consulted July 25, 2013

SPALDING, Frances, “London. Caulfield at the Tate Gallery”, The Burlington Magazine, 123, 944, 1981, p.694-697

TATE, Patrick Caulfield Artist Biography,, consulted July 22, 2013

TATE, Patrick Caulfield Exhibition,, consulted July 22, 2013

WALLIS, Clarrie, Patrick Caulfield, Tate Publishing, London, 2013

WHITSON, Catherine, Haunted Spaces: architecture and the uncanny in the works of Rachel Whiteread, Thomas Demand and Gregory Crewdson, master dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 2011,,attachment, consulted July 25, 2013