Sunday, 20 September 2009
The British have long fetishized the work of William Hogarth [1697-1754] as the product of their first native-born major painter. This, of course, leave out of consideration the exquisite miniatures painted in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. A new, comprehensive exhibition at Tate Britain gives one an opportunity to test this view. After it closes in London it will be seen at la Caixa in Madrid.
Hogarth is best known for paintings and prints made in series, or sometimes as contrasting pairs. The most famous of these sequences is The Rake’s Progress, now in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. An equivalent sequence, The Harlot’s Progress, survives only in the form of prints. The original canvases were destroyed in a fire in 1755. The Rake’s Progress has enjoyed a substantial success in the 20th century – it provided inspiration for Stravinsky’s opera of the same title , and a ballet choreographed by Ninette de Valois . Since then it has inspired a set of etchings by David Hockney  and a set of photographic prints by Yinka Shonibare , a British artist of African origin. Hogarth therefore remains deeply rooted in British culture – his moralizing prints are almost as much of an ur-text in Britain as Shakespeare’s plays.
In important respects, Hogarth seems very modern – his print series are the forerunners of the contemporary strip cartoon, or even of the television soap-opera. The second comparison is perhaps more important than the first, since it directs us to the fact that Hogarth’s art is unusually closely involved with the theatre. A number of his paintings are direct transcriptions of things seen in the playhouse, among them successive versions of the culminating scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Making use of already established popular tunes, this suggested that there were close parallels between London’s criminal underworld, and the upper reaches of British politics and society. A particular target was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
!8th century painting was in general very closely involved with the theatre, which was the chief popular entertainment of the day. In France Watteau and his followers Pater and Lancret made paintings that made use of the imagery of the commedia dell’arte. And, a generation later than Hogarth, Jean-Baptiste Greuze painted a series of moralizing narrative pictures that were muffled protests against the hedonistic life-style of the French court.
Hogarth’s work always has a rougher edge than anything produced in France – indeed, the artist was fiercely chauvinistic, and condemned what he thought of as the decadence of French manners and customs. In addition, because he had begun his career as a print-maker and only later turned to painting, his pictures were designed to be read – construed detail by detail – rather than just looked at. One sometimes gets the feeling, particularly from his satirical works, that Hogarth belongs to literature rather more than he does to art.
If one compares his paintings with small figures – and they form the major part of his output – to their French equivalents, Hogarth is a lot less suave than his French equivalents. In this sense, despite the 18th century costumes, he is more like an artist from a somewhat earlier epoch. Pieter Brjuegel the Elder comes to mind. However, there is one very important difference. The figures that appear in Bruegel’s genre scenes are peasants. And we know very well that the artist’s patrons were not peasants – they came from the elite of their time. Hogarth, in complete contrast to this was a townsman. When the British countryside appears in his paintings, it is only as an incidental backdrop to the main event. In one of his conversation pieces with a rural setting, The Jones Family [c. 1730], Hogarth makes his point rather explicitly. The main figures, elegantly dressed, are members of a Welsh land owning family. In the far distance, there are haymakers working and resting and a minute pair of lovers, copulating in a hay-rick. It is a townsman’s comment on the country life-style.
The source of the artist’s celebrity among his contemporaries was his prints, and no doubt they were also his main source of income. The people who purchased these prints were very much like himself, members of a new, aspirational middle-class. The importance of this class in English society was one of the things that distinguished life in Britain from life on the continent of Europe. In France artists remained far more dependent on official patronage, or, failing that on the patronage of people much further up the social scale than was the case in England. Hogarth, on the contrary, largely addressed his equals.
Like many self-educated men, Hogarth was impatient with the boundaries that other people tried to impose on him. He wanted to try his hand at many different kinds of painting. Hede he met with varying fortunes. His huge biblical paintings for St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London met with little success in his own lifetime and have met equally little acclaim since. His attempts at ‘history painting’ – for the artists and critics of his period the highest realm of art – met with little enthusiasm. His last picture of this sort, Sigismonda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo  shocked contemporaries because of what the exhibition catalogue describes ‘the shockingly corporeal, abject image of the glistening heart”. The contemporary audience founds this incongruous and grotesque. Today we can see that it anticipates, rather surprisingly, the Sturm und Drang of paintings by Fuseli.
What Hogarth did do well were portraits, especially portraits of rather blunt-featured English men and women with faces not unlike his own – he painted a self-portrait, based on one by Murillo that was already in an English collection in the early 18th century, in which he seems to compare himself to his pet pug.
The best-known of these portraits in a wonderful sketch called The Shrimp Girl, a likeness of a smiling street-vendor that was obviously painted purely for his own pleasure. In its rapid virtuoso handling of paint it anticipates the work of Manet.
Tate Britain until April 29, 2007
La Caixa, Madrid, May 29-August 26, 2007
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