Hogarth and Europe: Art Behaving Badly @ Tate Britain

The terracotta bust of Hogarth which seemed almost sentient, dynamic, vivid and about to speak was a wonderful surprise, as were his more typical portraits of individuals from his sisters to friends.

But as well as art and artists behaving badly, well, the information cards were awful. Whilst pointing out important themes such as diversity, slavery, colonialism fueling this society, they were incredibly weak on describing the actual art. For example, an opera singer is seemingly portrayed singing to a notable Lord during The Beggar’s Opera — it’s hard to work out who is who here — no further information is offered. Ditto the independent lady (Miss Mary Edwards) who, decades ahead of Beyonce’s single ladies stance, had herself portrayed as a unmarried woman (despite being married) to seemingly wipe out all ties with her husband. Why? There is a tantalising silence beyond the immediate.

Sexual practices are graphically described — yet there is hardly any detail at all for the man allegedly painted by his wife, (allegedly as this is in print form), as some kind of demon/cuckold/coltish fool. His frankly bizarre portrait is described here (as is Hogarth’s apparent friendship with the artist’s wife) but no further analysis offered at all about what has driven her to portray him in his baffling way. Is is a joke? Is it truth? Is a point about life/emotions being made here? Is she making a pointed comment? Is she mocking his faith or his position or behaviour? Is he the cad and cuckold portrayed here? Does he need to be? Is he needlessly jealous? Or is Hogarth just stirring things up by disrespecting this minister of religion? Could Hogarth be on the side of women and wives? Or is this a loving man with a strong wife whom people suggest bad things about because she must be fooling him? Rev Benjamin Hoadly from the life by his wife….Hogarth did actually paint a sensible picture of this Bishop of Winchester and the Bish’s wife is a painter so….could a swipe be being made at one who ‘during his time as bishop, he rarely visited his dioceses and lived, instead, in London, where he was very active in politics’…(and neglected his wife and religion perhaps?) if you believe Wikipedia Benjamin Hoadly — Wikipedia

Indeed I am utterly unconvinced by the info cards bald statement that women hunting for flea pictures were erotic. The paintings just aren’t, compared to those silly French pictures of the pastelled 18th century where ladies seem to be battling to stay dressed, washed, or get dressed when each item of clothing seems so slippery and gravitationally challenged, especially stockings vs kittens and flimsy high heeled slippers. Surely (more like the Dutch interior paintings or a still life) this is more an everyday life event — unless men want to be the fleas, which is weird (as they get squashed and annihilated)! These feels more like a working woman going about her business, which Susannah and the Elders like, we crash into and invade…Info cards suspiciously silent here.

Info cards constantly batter the reader by pointing out every non-white person and assuming the worst; I’m not always sure the caricature they see is there. When it is, it is horrible (such as the depicted ‘idle’ servant, dressed up and abandoning post) or the grinning servant — but everyone there is horribly depicted — is this a strange kind of equality? It’s clunky — not so much being directed to think and consider as being bashed over the head with a very few points, and truly misses the point — the art doesn’t get much of a mention. By contrast, I was gladdened to see Ignatius Sancho in his dignity there and a preacher I had never heard of before. Neither of these notable figures get much of a right up — how did the preacher come to be who he was and Sancho’s life story could fill an exhibition.

Class is also neglected in this exhibition — which is a shame because there is so much of it, from Gin Lane vs Beer Street; O the Roast Beef of Old England (aka the Gate of Calais); Southwark Fair; vile profligate Sir Francis Dashwood at his ‘devotions’; the delightful portraits of his household servants; the catastrophic Marriage a-la-Mode; the March of the Guards to Finchley; A Rake’s Progress. Hogarth made a living from social comment — it is a shame that this is ignored in this exhibition, often sticking to description rather than analysis.

Equally overlooked is the concept and acceptability of social gambling, risk and gain. This was to become a society in which polite social gambling, the making and losing of fortunes was permissable, and also in which everything was weighed and assigned a value, a price, including virtue and human beings, as much as the consumables and purchasable luxuries around them. The exhibition commentators just don’t get this. Hogarth does. And has much to say back to us today as a culture with deep inequalities and betting shops seeking embedding into economically disadvantaged communities.

Unexpected gems include David Garrick at work (and his wife) by a playful and intimate Zoffany; massive city maps (which I’d love to see more of — how rural London was!) Hogarth sculpted in terracotta; Beer Street (which I’d never heard of before); the servants of Hogarth(shown as humans not types, we feel their vulnerability and vitality at the same time), and a work which raised my regard for Hogarth infinitely — Francis Matthew Schultz in His Bed. Apparently paid for by his wife, to shame her husband into drinking less — this tells the tale of a whole domestic situation, hidden from society, and speaks to us deeply today #MeToo And the reality of it — in that his descendants turned the chamber pot he was vomiting into dramatically to an improving book! Thankfully this has been removed now, but we feel his wife’s distress, pain and love in this abominable picture of private secrets revealed (and admire Hogarth for getting involved in this marriage when the Law and often society/family would not help). The waste of life is shocking — the ultimate selfie.

Enjoyable it is too to compare Hogarth to Canaletto, Watteau, Longhi, Crespi and Troost. These are societies on the make — but who and what is being made and by whom? The pictures of drunken groups of notable men socialising and celebrating (whilst their potentially traded and trafficked servants vulnerably waited out of the way or tried to snooze) were horrible and I’m glad that those times are gone! Not a fan of A Modern Midnight Conversation or even the collapsed under the bottles and barrels Charity in the Cellar. (Can’t wait for the Victorians to turn up and sort everyone out, quite frankly — as now, England — we have a drinking problem). But the info cards ignore the point, as much as they ignore the details of the displayed goods showing ‘taste’ and a collector’s eye before a very watchful society — Hogarth’s humour holds up a mirror to his society and challenges them, even as they paid him and were his peers. This new acquisitive society is very fragile as The Cholmondeley Family shows — their mother deceased but brought back to life, the father torn with grief and the sons about to topple precarious piles of books alongside rampaging pets and parrots! All frozen into a civilised conversation piece which perhaps isn’t as polite as it looks.

Much like the real life beauty of Chardin:

@ Paintings taken from the Tate Britain exhibition Hogarth and Europe, February 2022 — not the author’s own and used to illustrate ideas only…

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