Έκθεση του Γουΐλιαμ Χόγκαρθ (1697-1764) στην Tate στο Λονδίνο με τίτλο: «Hogarth and Europe» από τις 3 Νοεμβρίου έως τις 20 Μαρτίου 2022

Γιατί ο Χόγκαρθ θεωρείται ο μεγαλύτερος ζωγράφος της Βρετανίας

As a new exhibition at Tate Britain celebrates the pioneering cultural figure, Matthew Wilson explores what has made his work so influential.

From our 21st-Century vantage, William Hogarth is arguably Britain’s most influential visual artist. He has been the subject of no fewer than four significant shows in London over the past two years. Key contemporary artists, including David Hockney, Paula Rego, Lubaina Himid, Yinka Shoninare and Grayson Perry, have paid explicit homage to his work over the past decades. Reverential parodies of Hogarth continue to appear in the work of modern political satirists such as Cold War Steve, Martin Rowson and Steve Bell; he has even been cited as a major influence on the legendary satirical magazine Private Eye. No other painter from British art history can claim such an extensive impact.

But in many ways, Hogarth seems like an unlikely father of British culture. His most famous artworks, such as the series A Harlot’s Progress (1732), A Rake’s Progress (1734) and Marriage à-la Mode (1743), are difficult to understand with their massive cast of characters, intricate plotlines, complex symbols, and obscure historic references. And these famous series seem to delight in showing exactly what Art (with a capital “A”) shouldn’t be: a blazing spectrum of seedy misbehaviour, addictions, vice, and villainy, as well as not-so-subtle allusions to bodily functions and sexual trysts. Hogarth was popular in his day, but was never fully recognised by the establishment, and his art lacks the scale, erudition and sublimity of a Reynolds, Constable or Turner.

So, what has made Hogarth’s art so influential? One key aspect is the way he embraced modernity. Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Hogarth and Europe, reshapes the attitude people have generally had of the artist – that he is a quintessentially British painter who embodied a national attitude and outlook. Maybe his longevity is less because of a perceived “Britishness” and more with how on-trend he was with the European cultural scene of his day.

According to Hogarth and Europe’s curator Alice Insley, the artist was born into a dynamic period of history. At the start of the 18th Century, the world was becoming ever more interconnected, and European society was changing fast. “Hogarth lived at a time when artists turned to modern life for the first time,” she tells BBC Culture, “and the representation of the city becomes a new subject. In London there was really rapid growth and social change – entertainment places like Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were springing up and the urban population became a new focus for artists.”

Hogarth’s fascination with city life is one of the factors that made him relevant to subsequent generations. The world has become increasingly urbanised since Hogarth’s time, and continues to be so: two-thirds of the global population are estimated to be living in cities by 2050. Although other European artists had begun turning city life into an artistic subject in the early 18th Century, Hogarth became the undisputed master of this new genre. He even pioneered a new art form with which to explain it: the multi-part series focusing on urban characters which Hogarth called his “Modern Moral Subjects”. They all originated as paintings but were turned into mass-producible engravings by Hogarth so that they could reach the masses.

A Harlot’s Progress was his first. It is about the rise and fall of a young woman who becomes a sex worker in London, and innovatively it is played out across six scenes, like a comic. But unlike most modern comics, Hogarth packed each image with a truly extraordinary amount of detail.

One great example of this is the first scene of Marriage à-la-Mode. The set-up is as follows: two fathers are coming to terms over the arranged marriage of their offspring. One (“the Earl of Squander”) is aristocratic but poor; the other is middle-class and wealthy. One will gain money through the marriage; the other social prestige. Love, clearly, is not a factor – hence the irony of the title, which translates as “The Fashionable Marriage”. Hogarth’s invective about these foolish social types comes through in the details. Outside a window you can see a building that has been commissioned by the aristocratic father. It is half-built, which cleverly symbolises the marriage’s shoddy foundations. But its design is also flawed. In the classical style of architecture, columns should always be used in even numbers. The fact that it has three columns across the entrance pithily marks the Earl of Squander as a being poor in artistic taste as well as morals – ultimate crimes in the Hogarth universe.

It is joyful to be told about these intricacies, and equally enjoyable explaining them to others. Perhaps this accounts for Hogarth’s art being passed on through the generations, and artists enthusiastically re-using and re-imaging his deliciously intricate visual language.

The invention of complex narratives based on the kinds of people you see around you in cities was a very clever entrepreneurial move by Hogarth. He poured scorn on the debauchery of modern lives – but his art also enticed customers who wanted to be spectators of sensation and scandal. As a result, A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage à-la-Mode were all fabulous successes, establishing the artist’s fame and financial security.

Insley believes that Hogarth’s popularity in the past explains his influence on the present. “Hogarth is such a rich artist in terms of how many strands there are to his art,” she says, adding that there was also something unique about his approach. “His influence on future artists may have been down to his critical outlook, and his originality in claiming independence. He carefully positioned himself as a social critic, someone shining a light on society.”

Hogarth’s stance as a critical outsider was a huge influence on a later generation of satirists, including James Gillray (1757-1815), who followed Hogarth in using sequential narration, and even directly copied some of Hogarth’s compositions. Into the 19th Century, the influence of Hogarth is evident in the paintings of some Pre-Raphaelites, including Millais and William Holman Hunt, who made criticisms of contemporary morality in their art and relied, like Hogarth, on symbolism to allow their paintings to be “read” almost like texts.

Even in the later 20th Century, Hogarth’s social commentary continued to have resonance. After a visit to New York in 1961, David Hockney made 16 etchings describing his imagined adventures and moral decline in the Big Apple called A Rake’s Progress. Hogarth’s precedent had given Hockney licence to turn his life’s pleasures and pitfalls into art.

But perhaps Hogarth’s greatest bequest is the way he handled satire. He mocked a great array of people and their shortcomings, and no one, no matter where they sat on the social hierarchy, was spared. It was this aspect of Hogarth that inspired Lubaina Himid (a pioneer of the Black Art Movement and winner of the Turner Prize in 2017) to recreate the fourth scene of Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-Mode in her installation A Fashionable Marriage in 1987. Himid recast all of Hogarth’s original figures in new roles in order to deride the artistic and political culture of the 1980s. They became critics and dealers, contemporary artists, young Tories, and caricatures of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. The most poignant aspect is the reworking of black figures from Hogarth’s original. Hogarth’s slave boy in the foreground of The Toilette, for example, is recast as a young black girl with a pistol beside her.

The modern satirist who has come closest to the original spirit of Hogarth is the photomontage artist Cold War Steve. Even when he is not creating an explicit homage to the work of Hogarth, Cold War Steve’s imagery is similarly rooted in the landscapes of the immediate present, and leverages modern technology to reach large audiences (for Hogarth the printing press – for Cold War Steve, Twitter). Both deal in images of abundant visual detail, excoriating mockery and withering social commentary.

Hogarth left a sizeable legacy to art with his innovative approach to image-making. He treated contemporary urban life and social criticism as the subjects of art, perfected a new art form (the multi-image series), and devised his own, highly nuanced visual language. But what will make his art perpetually modern is his engagement with the changes that he saw in the word around him. His art asked questions of society but it seldom gave easy answers. As Insley puts it, “he was quite a complex personality. He made the most out of his times. But his art shows that he was also quite anxious.” How true. Hogarth’s art was made for the people – and it reflects our contradictory and unruly nature.

Εικόνα: Με τον Χόγκαρθ ο διάβολος βρίσκεται πάντα στη λεπτομέρεια: Στο βάθος του έργου «The marriage contract» (το πρώτο έργο από τα έξι τής σειράς του Χόγκαρθ «Marriage à-la-Mode») το σπίτι Παλλάντιο (αρχιτεκτονικής τύπου Ανδρέα Παλλάντιο) υπονοεί διαφθορά και χυδαιότητα. (Getty Images)

Ειλημμένο από το BBC Culture, του Matthew Wilson