March 18, 2007

On Friday I went to see the Tate’s exhibition of William Hogarth’s work.  To those who don’t know, Hogarth was an engraver and painter who worked in England in the mid-1700s famous mostly for his satirical work.

The first thing I noticed was just how busy this exhibition is.  Clearly Hogarth’s work is very popular and I can see why – it does seem to be uniquely English, full of cynicism and humour that veers from the sophisticated to the bawdy.

The exhibits attracting most interest here are the Progress collections.  The first is A Harlot’s Progress which follows an innocent country girl’s arrival in London, becoming a prostitute and then her rapid descent.  The second is A Rake’s Progress which follows a young man who inherits a large sum of money, fritters it away on wine, women and song and then ends his life in the loony bin.  These are fun, up to a point, but I found them to be a bit heavy handed both in their moralising and crowded metaphor-heavy artwork.

It’s the later work that really works for me.  The portraits are where Hogarth’s painting really comes alive, where his sitters seem like very real people.  After this there are more engravings, particularly the celebrated Gin Lane and Beer Alley.  I love the kind of propaganda that presents beer drinking as noble and patriotic while the drinking of gin is destructive and immoral.  See also The Stages of Cruelty, another series based around the fate of a single character but for me has a few more things going for it than the earlier series – a rather more ironic and suitable death for a start.

In the last section of the exhibition it shows how Hogarth had fallen somewhat out of favour in some quarters because of his political beliefs.  This led to another favorite of mine where Hogarth took an old plate and then re-fashioned it to attack one of his critics by drawing him as a drunk bear brandishing a club and showing Hogarth’s dog pissing on the guy’s work.  This struck me as slightly reminiscent of modern photoshopping to make political points.  And damn funny.

But not as funny as the best and most enduring of all his work, a painted series called The Election which successfully shows the democratic process for the shambling wreck it is.  It’s full of humour and nearly every corner is another comedy goldmine.

While Hogarth was clearly unimpressed by most politicians he did appear to be rather successful in affecting political change.  The aforementioned Gin Lane was said to be influential in changing the Gin Act.  Probably less well known was Hogarth’s influence in creating a copyright law to protect engravers.  Apparently he got sick of being ripped off all the time.

A fascinating exhibition for so many reasons and well worth checking out if you get the chance.


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