Congratulations to William Hogarth on his posthumous elevation to these organisations. Better 300 years late than never.
With the prescience we associate with great artists, Hogarth anticipated the advent of these seminal movements. Hence his art is but a forward-looking membership application.
Such is the impression one gets when visiting the Hogarth exhibition at the Tate – that is, if one reads the blurbs accompanying the pictures.
These were provided by 18 scholars [hereinafter the emphasis is mine] carefully chosen by the Tate’s director Maria Balshaw, whose own personality lends a special lustre to the show.
There’s much I could tell you about Miss Balshaw, but all you need to know is her selections for Desert Island Discs. This popular radio show asks its guests to name the records they’d take with them to a desert island to relish in solitude until their dying breath.
Miss Balshaw would happily spend the rest of her life listening only to: the Specials, David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, Emmylou Harris, Anthony Johnson, Toumani Diabaté, Billy Brag and Stormzy. I can’t boast familiarity with any of these masterpieces, but you get the picture, as it were.
It’s only against this background that the Hogarth exhibition can be properly appreciated. Granted, Miss Balshaw’s musical selections might have been determined by political more than aesthetic considerations. You decide which is worse, but the Tate doesn’t have much of a chance in either case.
If Hogarth were to come back, he’d find out that the main thrust of his satire was directed against “… the entrenchment of racist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes.” However, he had to be careful about his criticism because of “…his wealthy patrons many of whom benefited from a culture based on colonial exploitation.”
But trust a great artist to get around such obstacles. Hogarth cast an inward look into his own subconscious to realise it was “…the system of transatlantic slavery” that kept him awake at night. Being subconscious, that realisation had to be conveyed subliminally.
Thus, when Hogarth showed his eponymous Rake in Bedlam at the end of his Progress, the artist subtly depicted his character “naked like the enslaved Africans”, not like, well, a Bedlam patient. That message would instantly pop up in any viewer’s mind, no question about that.
No one is allowed to forget the critical race theory for a second, even when the image ostensibly has nothing to do with race. Thus, Charity in the Cellar (see the photo) may look like merely a caricature of raucous drunkenness, but we must delve deeper.
“We must also consider that the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery.” Must we?
Instead, not being a scholar, I might have been tempted to tell the story behind the painting. It’s a parody of Roman Charity, a popular subject of art in the two centuries preceding Hogarth’s.
A woman, Pero, secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, condemned to die of starvation in his prison cell. That poignant story inspired dozens of paintings, three of them by Rubens who had strong links with England.
Hence Hogarth’s canvas (and subsequent engravings) was not only socially satirical, but also formally iconoclastic. That, I think, would be more interesting than the supposed provenance of the depicted booze – but then I did tell you I’m no scholar.
Another writer provides some vital demographic information, a propos of nothing in particular. He is scathing about Paris that wasn’t nearly as “diverse” as Hogarth’s own city. “It is estimated that 1-3% of the population of London had African heritage at that time,” we learn with gratitude. Our understanding of art has been honed no end.
With a masterly hand, Hogarth used multi-point perspective – social, not just visual. But then great art never tells just one thing: “While mocking social class, the dog also makes a racist juxtaposition with the trumpeter, signalling deepening ideas of racial difference pervasive in eighteenth-century culture.” Fido isn’t allowed to be just a dog; he is a juxtaposition.
Hogarth is credited with the talent for conveying BLM messages not only through domestic pets, but also through items of furniture. He did so in his self-portrait, showing the artist in a chair:
“The curvaceous chair is made of timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes that also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand-in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”
Yes, I suppose it could. It could also stand in for the derisory wages paid to furniture-makers, the liberation struggle of the working class and even, at a pinch, the objectifying of women, whose bodies are symbolised by the curvaceous chair. It could also stand in [sic] for someone who isn’t literate enough to know how to use the hyphen.
And speaking of women, the artist is in for a gentle rebuke: “Hogarth sometimes represents his female subjects not as sexual victims, but instead as sexual agents in their own right.” How dare he? Didn’t he know MeToo was on its way, albeit slowly?
Women should never be represented as equal partners in sex, not even sometimes. Any intercourse, marital or otherwise, is by definition an act of rape, and Hogarth ought to have known this.
He partially redeemed himself by his Before and After diptych. To any viewer whose sensibilities aren’t informed by a heightened awareness of the MeToo agenda, the Before painting shows an act of seduction.
A man is trying to get a woman into bed, with her putting up token resistance, as was de rigueur at that unsophisticated time when girls hadn’t yet learned to say “Fancy a shag?” to strangers. Not so, says the blurb.
What’s shown there is brutal rape, espied by the scholar with his X-ray vision. This, though in the After painting, the girl is clearly in love with her putative rapist.
The diptych shows no indication that whatever happened between Before and After wasn’t consensual. It didn’t have to: Hogarth was a moraliser to whom any fornication, with or without permission, was equally reprehensible because it went against his Protestant rectitude.
Yet to our scholar any sex is ipso facto rape, a reflection of male aggression and misogyny. This sensibility acts as both a light shining on the painting and a magnifying glass through which MeToo’s bogeymen (that is, all men) are clearly visible.
Miss Balshaw and her house-trained scholars must be congratulated. Many of us would be defeated by the task of turning eighteenth-century art into modern agitprop, but that jolly band passed the test with flying colours.
I’m disappointed though that they didn’t discern LGBT+ messages in Hogarth, nor notice that rainbow colours are present in his paintings, if not all in the same one. Or perhaps they felt it was self-evident that all Hogarth women were born as men and vice versa.