Saturday, March 10, 2007

Art Review : Hogarth (Tate Britain 16/02/07)

It is a pity that Hogarth did not anticipate the 21st Century blockbuster exhibition (and if he had, he would have probably captured the peering, jostling crowds to perfection). The pleasure in Hogarth's magnificent satirical paintings and prints lies in the detail, and, judging by the numbers thronging this magnificently-collated overview of Hogarth's work, he strikes a chord with many people. Unfortunately, such is their enthusiasm to see the original prints in detail that it can be difficult to get close to the works themselves without resorting to some elbow-work.

All the great series are here - The Rake's Progress, Marriage a la Mode, the Four Stages of Cruelty, alongside, in certain cases, the paintings upon which the engravings were based. Hogarth has a busy style, cramming the frames with colour and detail. Yet the revelation for me in this exhibition was his other paintings, the Conversation Pieces, the Historical works and especially the Portraits. I hadn't realised to what an extent that he was one of the great portraitists of the 18th Century, a worthy precursor to Reynolds, Gainsborough and Ramsey.

Take his portrait of George Arnold, for example. He is a solid man, radiating straightforwardness and honesty. His eyes are acute, with a trace of a smile around a set mouth. He seems an approachable man, someone with whom you can do business. Most of Hogarth's sitters were of a similar background: the successful middle classes rather than the aristocracy.

Justifiably famous as well is his portrait of apothecary Daniel Graham's children. Not only do the children come alive as lively individuals, the portrait itself is full of entrancing detail - notably the eager-faced tabby poised to pounce on the caged goldfinch (not a bullfinch as it erroneously states in the otherwise splendid catalogue. Neither is the young lady on stage in "The Indian Emperor" Lady Catherine Lennox (cat pg 108), but Lady Caroline Lennox, future wife of Henry Fox). Maybe this is a portent of the tenuousness of our hold on life, since, as the winged-figure of a golden, scythe-wielding Death above the baby Thomas symbolises, Thomas was dead before the painting was finished.
But above all, Hogarth was a connoisseur of London life in all its varieties. His great series depict the decline and fall of the gullible and foolish, drawn in by the cheats and charlatans of 18th Century London. Innocent and fair Moll Hackabout arrives in London looking for her cousin. She cannot find her, but Mother Needham is ready to offer assistance. Moll has brought a goose for her cousin, but she is the goose herself - as the notorious rake and rapist Colonel Charteris looks on, hand jigging in pocket.

One of Hogarth's great gifts is his accessibility. His prints are rich in symbolism, but one doesn't have to be an Art Historian or to read the detailed notes by each painting to see by the merchant peering at the marriage contract whilst the noblemen points to his family tree that the Marriage a la Mode was not made in heaven. The young couple look on disengagedly - he takes a pinch of snuff whilst admiring himself in the mirror, she glumly plays with her ring whilst their dogs (always a good signifier for Hogarth) show no interest in each other. Soon, she is having an affair with the Lawyer Silvertongue, he has succumbed to the pox - all described in minutest of detail. As the Countess stretches contentedly in the second scene, the dog has sniffed out the ladies undergarment in the pocket of the Viscount.
The teeming, dirty, hypocritical energy of 18th Century London - the Gin craze, the South-Sea Bubble, the threat from the Jacobites and from the French, the fall of Walpole and the rise of Pitt - all is captured by Hogarth and translated into deadly satire with the finest execution. In a way, for a man whose success was founded upon his ability to describe the London crowd in all its variegated glory, it is entirely appropriate that the modern crowds should now be paying their respects in turn to Hogarth.

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