A Hogarth investigation has good intentions but misses the mark
LONDON — William Hogarth is best known for his moralizing satires of British pretentiousness, such as his painting sequences The progress of a rake (1732-1734) or Fashionable wedding (1743), and for his xenophobic nationalism as evidenced, for example, by the grotesque depictions of the French in “The Gate of Calais(1843). the hurry for the Tate Britain show Hogarth and Europe intrigue at first by promising to watch it in context with its European counterparts for the first time”,[exploring] the parallels and exchanges that have crossed borders and the cosmopolitan character of [his] art.” As contemporary Britain feels the economic pinch of Brexit turmoil, this statement from Tories Alice Insley and Martin Myrone rings like a shrewd echo of pro-European Union sentiments.
However, a different topical issue emerges as the main reason for the contextualization of Hogarth and Europe – that of societal inequality, racism, sexism and colonialism. British institutions are increasingly looking inward to examine their colonial past and their links to slavery. Museum officials are rethinking ways to present the visual content of their collections, much of which perpetuates outdated and, at times, condemnable societal attitudes, and commissioning reports identify where institutions benefited from colonialism and slavery. With this in mind, we are invited to consider Hogarth’s theory enlightenment period in the eighteenth century as having ideals “produced by and [which] benefited from it, white men of the middle and upper classes. The concept of European superiority deepened, entrenching ideas of nationhood, personal identity, and racial difference, manifested in the horrors of transatlantic slavery.
It is therefore unfortunate that a heavy-handed approach to this project, combined with a lack of focus, is seriously undermining the honorable intentions of the Conservatives. This is the first exhibit I’ve seen in which the senior curators write the major wall captions, but an additional group of ‘commentators’ have been formed to provide ‘perspective and expertise’ in smaller captions. These include art historians, artists and conservationists, as well as Museum Detox Interpretation Group, an organization made up of people of color who work in museums and heritage and seek to champion diversity in the arts. At best, the additional commentary is insightful and provides starting points for discussion, or highlights the importance of minor characters who are peripheral in the compositions.
Problems arise, however, when this becomes too speculative – for example, imagining the thoughts of marginalized characters in artwork (often people of color) – or forces the agenda beyond provability. Next to Hogarth’s”The poet in distress(1733-35), for example, is a legend by Lars Tharp that emphasizes the presence of porcelain and tea imported from Asia (especially a red “probably Chinese” teapot), all nearly impossible to manufacture . in the image itself – other visitors I’ve noticed have also had trouble finding these items. This reading ignores the main focus, which is a poet slumped over his latest work in a decrepit studio, neglecting his family, and the presence of a milkmaid demanding an unpaid bill, in favor of barely visible tropes of colonialist expansion. tea and porcelain. Other details, like an empty cupboard except for a mouse and a dog stealing food from the family’s plate, clearly underline the main satirical emphasis on the aspiring poet’s social and romantic pretensions. at the expense of feeding his family and paying those who serve him.
It is in fact a curious paradox that because conservatives seek to find commonalities between Hogarth and his European contemporaries in an effort to highlight societal inequality, as well as the exploitation and privilege resulting from slavery across the board, the exposition might as well not be on Hogarth at all. This is unfortunate, as it is the most comprehensive collection of his art likely to be assembled for years to come; it includes 60 works, including private loans and pieces from the United States, including the magnificent portrait of “Miss Mary Edwards(1742) from Frick in New York.
The final room is filled with numerous portraits examining a tendency to portray greater humanity among the wealthy, but the question of inequality is forced again with this opaque explanation: “Sometimes when these images suggest subjectivities rejected or compromised by dominant ideas of race, class and gender, they allude to the broken promises and contradictions of modern European society. A valid point hovers around this ambiguous language, but the dense academic prose seems to avoid the direct address of wealth and privilege.
Yet what most complicates the attempt to unify Hogarth and European artists and highlight outdated depictions is the question of satire and how he used it. Take “Southwark Fair” (1733), which depicts a fair held annually around Borough High Street until its abolition in 1762, and was often a scene of violence and impropriety. It abounds with countless details of cartoonish characters engaged in revelry; on the far right a stage collapses under the weight of the actors in a moment of chaos. Among the crowd are figures watching a peep show, a dwarf playing bagpipes and, a clear sign of an upside-down society, a dog dressed as a gentleman and walking on its hind legs. This is obviously an ironic condemnation of polite society collapsing with the excuse of a festival. Next to the dog is a black man playing a trumpet. The Tories caption draws a deliberate parallel between the dog dressed as a gentleman and the trumpet player, stating that while “mocking social class”, he nevertheless “signals the deepening of ideas of racial difference pervasive in 18th-century culture. “. No further commentary is given to support this reading, so it is more of a suggested interpretation than an overwhelmingly compelling example of outright racism in Hogarth’s work.
As conservatives have centered inequality in 18th-century European society throughout the survey, the satire promises a more productive way to approach the subject than simply looking for evidence of colonialist tropes such as tea and coffee. porcelain or tobacco, coffee and sugar – “[latent] elements of exploitation and subjection” – in Hogarth “A Midnight Modern Conversation(shown at the Tate in a copy after the lost original). This is not to deny recognition of these items as evidence of horrific exploitation in their production, but focus on such elements threatens to rule out the possibility of a more complex discussion. (Ironically, the attention to satire underscores how distinct Hogarth is from his European contemporaries, whose works on display never reach his capacity for nuanced satire.)
Far from simply recording things as they appeared, Hogarth’s over-the-top compositions and other satirical elements are active commentary meant to provoke thought. The introductory text specifies that the works presented “express a critical view of society, but they also reveal the rootedness of racist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes. Artists may have celebrated individuality, but they also made depictions of disturbing or dehumanizing people. Within Hogarth, it is this entanglement of the over-the-top grotesqueness of satire and the recording of figures informed by entrenched racist perceptions of the time that problematizes any direct interpretation of his imagery.
The section on “A Modern Midnight Conversation” ponders whether this image of white men falling in the dunk, in various versions with black slaves present, is a moralizing condemnation of the vice and material mores of a society benefiting from the slavery, or in fact a gentle and affectionate ribs of the behaviors of that stratum of society, in which Hogarth was trying to ingratiate himself. In this case, we can see Hogarth as complicit in perpetuating colonialist stereotypes of slavery and oppression.
While the primary purpose of this exhibition is, it seems, to unveil and belatedly condemn the racist elements of these works, it misses an important point. Yes, much of the art contains imagery that is unacceptable as it reflects the social and racial hierarchies of the time. But why bring together the largest group of Hogarths by far just to sweep it wholesale into this bucket, without indicating why calling out the flaws of historical works of art is important to our understanding of our world today? Or discuss the ambiguity of satire, which allows the artist to position himself as an external critic and to be an accomplice to the acts criticized. This same positional ambiguity still allows for a lot of ingrained racism and white privilege. It is a fact that social systems, and therefore daily life, in the UK and abroad are shaped by the horrors of slavery and colonialism, but by seeking out and condemning the artefacts of the past, the curators of this and similarly themed exhibits risk historicizing racism. Rather, we should relate it to the very real and still entrenched racism and sexism of today. In short, what can we learn from these works if we erect them like mirrors?
It is never a pleasure to address curatorial missteps when an exhibit has at its core a very urgent and honorable desire to condemn outdated racist views and stereotypes. Despite its shortcomings and sometimes muddled delivery, we must nonetheless admire the conservative effort to reassess Hogarth who, for a long time, was given a free pass under the indulgent umbrella of “satire.” One of British art’s most revered eccentric figures shouldn’t be without criticism, and curators should be credited for creating a conversation around the issue in the first place. An important element to take away from the exhibition is the encouragement more than ever to consider the societal and historical context in which art is created; in short, not to simply take its message at face value, which is a fundamental principle of the history of investigative art.
Hogarth and Europe continues at the Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) until March 20. The exhibition was curated by Alice Insley, Curator, British Art c 1730 – 1850, and Martin Myrone, Former Senior Curator, Pre-1800 British Art, Tate Britain.