Hogarth and Europe. A rewarding show at Tate Britain

marriage_a_la_mode_-_the_tete_a_tete_1

               Hogarth’s ‘Marriage-A-La-Mode 2 – The Tête à Tête 1743

I am always happy to revisit Hogarth’s work. His irreverent paintings and prints seem more alive today in our age of political correctness. 

Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain contains sixty Hogarth works, some of them new to the English public, and showcases a plethora of artists from France, Italy, and Holland, most of them little known, aside Chardin and Canaletto. 

At times the links between Hogarth and these artists were tenuous, however I do admit to loving this show – I have visited it twice. 

The eighteenth century was a fascinating era of relative calm and economic growth. It was an age of experimentation and big political ideas. There was much talk of liberty, but it was still a time when women, Jewish people and people of black heritage were still regarded as second-class citizens. Hogarth’s focus was on the aspirational society growing up around him, one, in which both the poor and wealthier classes fared badly.

A Harlot’s Progress charts Moll Hackabout’s rise and fall. A Rake’s Progress shows the fate of Tom Rakewell, a merchant’s son, who, seeking to emulate an aristocratic lifestyle, loses his money and his mind. In ‘Marriage A-La-Mode’ a couple tries to keep up with the aristocratic Jones and has ruinous affairs – leading to murder and suicide. Hogarthian drama is never dull, and there are so many details to marvel at in his paintings and prints.

So, what of the European artists? Where do they fit in? We are told that Hogarth’s storytelling has its roots in seventeenth-century Dutch and Italian painting. But Hogarth and his European contemporaries, such as Giuseppe Maria Crespi, took it a step further by creating narratives across a series of individual paintings. Crespi for instance created a story of a female opera singer. His tableaux at the show are interesting but lack the gritty detail of Hogarth who updated the subject matter and gave it more life in his prints.

Entertainment and leisure are reoccurring themes at the exhibition. We see many market scenes and fairs in London and Paris. I was surprised to come across Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens c1751 painted by Canaletto.His brush strokes in white to denote bonnets, rosettes on dresses and shirt cuffs, makes for an interesting lighting effect. The faces meanwhile are too impressionistic. 

Of particular note were the crude shenanigans of a Dutch citizen, painted by Cornels Troost. The title says it all: Misled: The Ambassador of the Rascals Exposes himself from the Window of ‘t Bokki Tavern in the Haarlemmerhout. 

The room entitled In the Company of Men carries along in same vein of men behaving badly but not being judged for it. Sir Francis Dashwood at his Devotions is a real Hogarthian curiosity. Not only is the painting blasphemous, but overtly sexist. Dashwood kneels at a table, a substitute altar, and beside a holy-looking book, the miniature body of a naked woman, the object of his ‘devotions’, flays around seductively.  It was meant to be a joke, but today it comes across as sinister.

In the Questioning Hogarth room, Hogarth’s depiction of men, women and ethnic minorities is called into question. Hogarth’s Before sees a woman being overwhelmed by a suitor’s advances. She knocks over a table. Rape was practically unheard of – it was seduction at every turn.

A most arresting painting by Bostonian artist, John Greenwood dominates the room: Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam 1752-8. It was inspired by Hogarth’s print A Midnight Modern Conversation. In Greenwood’s painting, the punchbowl party has got out of hand and a man is vomiting over his friend, who has fallen asleep at table. In the left-hand corner a bare-chested black servant is seen handing out the vessels. One of the art critics from the Tate, mentions another enslaved servant in the painting, who is serving drinks. He, she states, has been painted much smaller than the captains he is serving. The critic speaks of Greenwood’s ‘innate racism’ but admits that it was probably not the artist’s intention. 

The artists were indeed unaware of their prejudice – the abolishment of the Slave Trade Act didn’t take place until 1807, well after their deaths. The works on view are populated with black servants and boy musicians. In profile, tucked away in corners, never facing out to the viewer, they live in the shadow of their employers, and artists such as Hogarth were merely recording the status quo however unpalatable it may seem to us nowadays.

The final room takes us into portraiture which was a fine earner for Hogarth and other artists. Hogarth’s portrait of Miss Mary Edwards 1742 was particularly eye-catching. She is an independent beauty in a red dress and one of Hogarth’s clients, an interesting woman in her own right. Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants is also worth pouring over. It shows to what extent portraiture was opening up in style and subject.

Overall, a very rich show which may demand two to three visits to fully appreciate the extent of art that is on display. 

KH

Hogarth and Europe is on at Tate Britain until 20th March 2022 https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/hogarth-and-europe

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