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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Hogarth: Vice and Virtue

Art Review

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An exhibition of etchings by William Hogarth at the Haggerty Museum (through April 13) shows an artist proudly exerting the ideals of English liberty by deftly holding his society up to scorn. Despite the didactic tone of much of the work in this exhibit, it’s clear the artist held no human virtue to be entirely incorruptible.

Take patriotism, for example. We know Hogarth to have been boisterously pro-English and opposed to the importation of foreign art and fashion, evident in his Battle of the Pictures (1745). His wit was most keenly sharpened against the foibles of the French, whose famished faces he rubs into a sizable hunk of “roast beef of old England” in The Gate of Calais (1748-49). In The Invasion, Plate I (1756) he offers more of the same: hollow-cheeked French soldiers roasting frogs for sustenance. Yet the second plate in the same series shows an English rabble lolling about idly and appearing just as over-sated as the French look malnourished.

Moreover the rabble brazenly lampoons those of a higher station. A figure in the far left paints a caricature of a monarch on the wall, and himself parodies the regal pose, brandishing his brush like a staff, a makeshift cape cast around his shoulders. A similar irreverence is apparent in Canvassing for Votes (1755-58), where a figurehead of the British lion consumes a French fleur-de-lis. This symbol of English valor is quickly negated by the woman seated carelessly on the figurehead, counting money that we can safely assume is earned by illicit means.

This is not to say Hogarth’s scorn was reserved only for the lower echelons of society. British soldiers are seen in The Invasion as applying arbitrary methods to enlist new recruits. In The Cockpit (1759) gentleman rub shoulders with those of low social standing, together slaking their thirst for bloody spectacle. The Four Stages of Cruelty (1750-51) extends this criticism to the wardens of the oppressed who are clearly failing to do their job. This particular series seems to go against Hogarth’s ideal of the self-made man in command of his own fate. The destiny of Tom Nero, the subject of the series, seems preordained. In the first plate Hogarth suggests such crimes are embedded in man’s very nature, “the tyrant in the boy.” What’s more, near the foreground a young boy draws a picture of a man hanging in the gallows and labels it Tom Nero. In the second a lawyer ignores the name of notorious felon James Field emblazoned on a playbill and instead makes note of Tom Nero flailing his horse. In the third plate Nero’s apparent victim points significantly to the words “God’s revenge against murder.”

The cycle of justice completes its revolution in the last plate where Nero’s dead body is subjected to the same torments as the animals in the first plate, and a dog feeds on his vital organs in the foreground. Even the infamous James Field seems to get his just desserts, his skeleton occupying the upper left side of the etching. Yet between the two felons occupying the extreme poles of the image, there are a host of gross inequities unfolding whose purveyors seem to escape the heavy hand of justice.
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