"Hogarth": Tate Britain, London.
It is clear from the major new exhibition in London's Tate Britain that the artist William Hogarth was seriously politically incorrect. His famous satirical series of pictures and prints such as A Harlots Progress (1732), A Rake's Progress (1734), Industry and Idleness (1747), and The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) are all unflinchingly moral tales of individuals who chose wicked modes of conduct--betrayal, profligacy, idleness, and cruelty that led them inexorably to imprisonment and execution. In one case, the earthly penalty even went beyond death itself; as we see his corpse being handed over to the anatomists after a public hanging for murder and gruesomely dissected. We are left in no doubt but that each of them is to blame for his or her own fate. Hogarth's is a world of real justice, not social justice, and a direct and deliberate rebuke to those who would excuse or romanticize crime. Hogarth's highwaymen are not dashing outlaws but muggers on horseback, and murder is murder, not a product of deprivation but rather the end point of a series of successively more and more evil choices. As in a traditional western, the varmints got what they deserved.
Insofar as society has a duty to them, it is that of restricting access to temptation, notably gambling and gin, the subject of Hogarth's Gin Lane (1751). Gin, mother's ruin, is for Hogarth an evil foreign drink, the strongly alcoholic Dutch-invented jenever, that is displacing the weaker, healthier British beer of Beer Street (1751), "happy produce of our Isle ... that warms each English generous breast with Liberty and Love." Hogarth's work was a propaganda contribution to Britain's early eighteenth-century war against drugs, through the Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751. As if a belief in personal moral responsibility were not bad enough, Hogarth now stands revealed as a patriot and a xenophobic campaigner against evil foreign cultural influences. How incorrect can you get?
Hogarth's chief enemy in this respect was France, which he saw as the great source of a new and corrupting taste for luxury and licentiousness, which was undermining the moral fiber of his own country. This comes across strongly in Hogarth's famous series of six paintings, Marriage a la mode (1735), a French title for a fashionable marriage not designed to endure. Viscount Squanderfield, a man already badly stricken with "the French pox" (as syphilis was then called), marries the daughter of a wealthy London alderman seeking an aristocratic alliance. In scene one, entitled The Marriage Settlement, his father, the gout- and debt-ridden Earl Squander, proudly displays his family tree, while the myopic alderman peers bespectacled at the marriage documents. The would-be bridegroom, dressed as a French fop, looks not at his bride-to-be, but at his own reflection in an expensive rococo mirror, the very symbol of French frivolity in the age of Fragonard. But the real clue lies in the bright red heels, and highish heels at that, on the bridegroom's black shoes. They are the red heels, les talons rouges, worn by one of the higher French nobility when being presented at the French court, the red heels that are a symbol of the uselessness of a man who never needs to get his feet dirty, and this at a time when the British aristocracy were busying themselves with the turnips, crop rotation, animal breeding, and improved tools that were the basis of Britain's agricultural revolution. In the third scene, The Toilette, the wife, now installed in their new Palladian house crammed with French novelties, soon adopts the custom of the French court of receiving visitors in boudoir or bedroom, while getting dressed. She is attended by a French hairdresser and a wildly effeminate, chocolate-sipping French dancing master. Also present is Mr. Silvertongue, the greasy lawyer seen earlier drawing up the marriage settlement, who now becomes her lover and who, when caught in bed and flagrante with her, kills the husband in a sword fight. The lawyer is hanged, the wife commits suicide with an overdose of opium on hearing the news, and her young syphilitic daughter clings to her mother's corpse in a last embrace in scene six, The Lady's Death, The Countess's Suicide. It is all down to the corrupting influence of French luxury.
Alongside these tales of French debauchery hangs Hogarth's great masterpiece, O the Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais) (1748). In that year Hogarth had visited Paris with a group of fellow artists, but he was so disgusted by the French that he left early and returned to England via Calais, where, caught sketching the gate of the city, he was arrested as a spy. To prove that he was an artist, not a spy, Hogarth drew the gate for his French captors, showing a huge sirloin steak imported from Britain, being carried ashore by a butcher to a hotel for British visitors. Back home in England he produced the painting, O the Roast Beef of Old England, in which three starveling French soldiers gaze at the steak in hungry amazement and a fat friar prods it covetously with his finger. In the distance, we can see a Roman Catholic religious procession and, in the corner, a tartan-clad Scottish Jacobite rebel, now in exile, lunching on a crust of bread and an onion. Like that great Republican Dr. Samuel D. Burchard, Hogarth was a denouncer of rum, Romanism, and rebellion.
Hogarth saw France as a country of military and religious tyranny whose people had been reduced to contemptible beggary. Hogarth was a great conservative upholder of the English establishment against France, against the Jacobins, against the crime and degeneracy of the mob, and even against John Wilkes, the radical, and the wild excesses of Methodism.
Today we associate Methodism with respectability, stability, and President George W. Bush, but for Anglican latitudinarians like Hogarth's friends it represented "enthusiasm" and a fanaticism, the opposite and the enemy of ordered and orderly religion. In Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism (1760), Hogarth shows a Methodist preacher rant from the pulpit while the members of his congregation shriek, groan, and faint; a dignified and horrified Mohammedan watches through the window in amazement. How times have changed. In the Methodist meeting house, two large thermometers measure respectively the preacher's "scale of vociferation" and the congregation's level of hysterical response. Thirty years before, Hogarth had mocked an earlier generation of Dissenters in The Denunciation (1729), in which a pregnant, unmarried woman falsely declares before a magistrate that the father of her child is a plainly dressed but miserly and prosperous man of that religious persuasion. The accused, though a victim of the corrupt and lying crowd around him, is made a figure of fun as he raises his eyes and hands to Heaven in protest, while his infuriated wife berates him. Hogarth saw Methodists and dissenters as lying as far outside the moral order of a rational, moderate, temperate, generous, and philanthropic religion as the rakes, gamblers, and whores of his other pictures. Likewise, Hogarth, the great upholder of English Liberty, drew John Wilkes Esq. (1763), the radical editor of The North Briton and a fighter for democracy, as a squinting, leering, demonic figure; Hogarth achieved the amazing feat of making Wilkes even uglier than he was. Hogarth, like so many satirists, should be seen as a conservative. He drew disorder because he believed in order. He denounced deviant individuals because he wanted morality preserved.
The organizers of the exhibition are uneasy at this "unacceptable" face of Hogarth, though they not only accept that he was like that but provide us with the evidence for it. The media has played down Hogarth's Francophobia. Given that the exhibition originally opened in the Musee du Louvre and only later transferred to London and that it has received a major French scholarly input, this is hardly surprising. Likewise, they stress how thorough was Hogarth's knowledge of French art and how much he drew on it for his own work. True, but how else could he mock the French artists' portrayals and celebrations of seduction, the fetes galantes, those fetes worse than death?
There is, also, an attempt to nudge Hogarth in the direction of social causality and to make personal wickedness a consequence of poverty and the bad influence of others. The necessary ambiguities present in the work of any satirist are over-emphasized in order to render Hogarth's message less sharp. They note that in the first plate of A Harlots Progress (1732), Moll Hackabout's cousin fails to meet her when she arrives in London from the country by the York stagecoach and thus she is taken up by Mother Needham, a notorious procuress, who notices the pretty girl. She is innocence corrupted by others. Yet Moll's real downfall occurs in plate two. A wealthy London Jew has taken her on and installed her in a fine apartment with a maid and a little, turbaned, black pageboy, a mere child, to show off her complexion. It could have been lasting multicultural bliss, but then, as we can see, Moll insults and betrays her protector by entertaining a young lover in his house. It is an act of wanton stupidity that leads to her expulsion to become a prostitute in a garret and subsequently to go to jail. This second stage in her progress she freely chose for herself.
The curators' main point, though, is to stress Hogarth's "variety," as being not just a satirist but a notable painter of portraits and urbane conversation pieces and a contributor to the "high art" that employs religious, historical, and literary "canonical" themes. The last of these we can dismiss; better to agree with Sir Joshua Reynolds who wrote that Hogarth
very imprudently, or rather presumptuously, attempted the great historical style, [for] which his previous habits had by no means prepared him.... It is to be regretted that any part of the life of such a genius should be fruitlessly employed.
Sir Joshua was right. Hogarth's genius for detail in his satires becomes in his religious engravings a weakness for clutter. Hogarth's feel for the absurd and the exaggerated, a strength in a satirist, leads to literary and religious paintings that are horrendously melodramatic. These works had been better left in the cellars of the galleries that own them and not brought to the exhibition.
The portraits and the family gatherings, by contrast, are worth seeing, but they are simply the obverse of his satires. Hogarth's best portraits are all of worthies, such as Captain Thomas Coram (1740), the shipping magnate who created the Coram Hospital for Foundling Children, and George Arnold (1738-1740), a substantial merchant and philanthropist. They are plain, vigorous men, grown rich from global capitalism, now devoting their wealth to active charity. Their portraits, like William Jones (1740), a distinguished mathematician, are clear, realistic statements of the straightforwardness of virtue, which is the other side of his complicated portrayals of vice. The same may be said of Hogarth's happy families, The Jones Family (1730), The Strode Family (1738), The Western Family (1738) decorously entertaining a few respectable friends, quite the opposite of Marriage a la Mode. The simplicity and clarity of virtue is contrasted with the detailed chaos of vice. What could be more politically incorrect than that?
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|Title Annotation:||Exhibition notes; William Hogarth|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2007|
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|Next Article:||"George Stubbs: A Celebration": The Frick Collection, New York.|
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|Hogarth: A Life and a World.|
|Cecilia Edefalk: Art Institute of Chicago.|
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