LONDON — William Hogarth is best known for his moralizing satires of British pretension, such as his painting sequences A Rake’s Progress (1732–34) or Marriage a la Mode (1743), and for his xenophobic nationalism as exhibited, for example, by grotesque depictions of the French in “The Gate of Calais” (1843). The press for Tate Britain’s show Hogarth and Europe initially intrigues by promising to look at him in context with his European counterparts for the first time, “[exploring] the parallels and exchanges that crossed borders and the cosmopolitan character of [his] art.” While contemporary Britain is feeling the economic pinch from Brexit turmoil, this statement from curators Alice Insley and Martin Myrone sounds like a canny echo of pro-European Union sentiments.

However, a different topical issue emerges as the primary reason for contextualizing Hogarth and Europe — that of societal inequality, racism, sexism, and colonialism. UK institutions are increasingly looking inward to examine their colonial pasts and 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 Museum officials are rethinking ways to present the visual content of their collections, much of which perpetuates outdated and, at times, condemnable societal attitudes, and commissioning reports to identify where institutions have benefited from colonialism and slavery. In this spirit, we are invited to consider Hogarth’s period of Enlightenment during the 18th century as having ideals “produced by, and [which] benefited, white men from the middle and upper classes. The concept of European superiority deepened, entrenching ideas about nation, personal identity, and racial difference, manifested in the horrors of transatlantic slavery.”

It is unfortunate, then, that a heavy-handed approach to this project, combined with a lack of focus, sorely undermines the curators’ honorable intentions. This is the first exhibition I have seen in which the lead curators write the main wall captions, but an additional group of “commentators” has been formed to lend “perspective and expertise” in smaller captions. These include various art historians, artists, and conservationists, as well as the Museum Detox Interpretation Group, a body composed of people of color who work in museums and heritage and who seek to champion diversity in the arts. At best, the additional commentary is insightful and provides jumping off points for discussion, or highlights the significance of minor characters who are peripheral in the compositions.

William Hogarth, “The Distressed Poet” (1733-35), oil on canvas, 25 x 30.9 inches, Birmingham Museums Trust (image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Issues arise, however, when it becomes too speculative — for instance, imagining the thoughts of marginalized figures in the artworks (often people of color) — or forces the agenda beyond provability. Next to Hogarth’s “The Distressed Poet” (1733-35), for example, is a caption by Lars Tharp that homes in on the presence of porcelain and tea imported from Asia (specifically a red teapot that is “probably Chinese”), all of which are almost impossible to make out in the image itself — other visitors I noticed also struggled to find these items. This reading ignores the main focus, which is a poet slumped over his latest work in a decrepit bedsit, neglecting his family, and the presence of a milkmaid demanding an unpaid bill, in favor of barely visible tropes of colonialist expansion in tea and porcelain. Other details, such as a cupboard empty save for a mouse, and a dog stealing food from the family’s plate, clearly emphasize the primary satirical focus on the social and romantic pretensions of the aspiring poet at the expense of feeding his family and paying those who serve him.

It is actually a curious paradox that because the curators seek to find commonalities between Hogarth and his European contemporaries with the purpose of highlighting societal inequality, as well as exploitation and privilege resulting from slavery across the board, the exhibition might as well not be about 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, among them private loans and pieces from the US, notably the gorgeous portrait of “Miss Mary Edwards” (1742) from the Frick in New York. 

William Hogarth, “Miss Mary Edwards” (1742), oil on canvas, 49.7 x 39.8 inches, the Frick Collection, New York (photo by Joe Coscia Jr.)

The last room is filled with many portraits examining a trend toward depicting greater humanity in wealthy sitters, yet the question of inequality is again forced with this opaque explanation: “Sometimes, where these images suggest subjectivities rejected or compromised by the dominant ideas about race, class and gender, they hint at the unfulfilled promises and contradictions of modern European society.” A valid point is hovering around in this ambiguous language, but the dense academic prose seems to sidestep direct address of wealth and privilege. 

Yet what most complicates the attempt to both 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 that was held around Borough High Street every year until its abolition in 1762, and was often a scene of violence and impropriety. It is crammed with innumerable details of cartoonish figures engaged in revelry; on the far right a stage collapses under the weight of actors in a moment of chaos. Among the crowd are figures watching a peepshow, a dwarf playing bagpipes, and, in a clear indication of society gone topsy-turvy, a dog dressed as a gentleman and walking on its hind legs. It is demonstrably a wry condemnation of polite society breaking down with the excuse of a festival. Adjacent to the dog is a Black man playing a trumpet. The curators’ caption posits a deliberate parallel between the dog dressed as a gentleman and the trumpeter, indicating that while “mocking social class” it nonetheless “signals deepening ideas of racial difference pervasive in 18th Century culture.” There is no further comment given to support this reading, so it remains more a suggested interpretation than an overwhelmingly convincing example of outright racism within Hogarth’s work. 

William Hogath, “A Midnight Modern Conversation” (c. 1732), oil on canvas, 30 x 64.4 inches, Yale Center for British Art (image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the curators have centered inequality in 18th-century European society throughout the survey, satire promises a more productive way into the subject than simply looking out for evidence of colonialist tropes such as tea and porcelain or tobacco, coffee, and sugar — “[latent] elements of exploitation and subjection” — in Hogarth’s “A Midnight Modern Conversation” (shown at the Tate in a copy after the lost original). This is not to deny the recognition of such items as evidencing horrific exploitation in their production, but focusing on such items threatens to sideline the potential for a more complex discussion. (Ironically, the attention to satire highlights how distinct Hogarth is from his European contemporaries, whose works on view never achieve his capacity for nuanced satire.)

Far from simply recording things as they appeared, Hogarth’s exaggerated compositions and other satirical elements are active commentaries meant to provoke thought. The introductory text says the works shown “express a critical view of society, but they also reveal the entrenchment of racist, sexist, and xenophobic stereotypes. Artists may have celebrated individuality, but they also made representations of people that are disturbing or dehumanising.” Within Hogarth it is this tangling of the exaggerated grotesquery of satire and the recording of figures informed by entrenched racist perceptions of the time that problematizes any straightforward interpretation of his images.

The section on “A Modern Midnight Conversation” questions whether this image of white men falling about dunk, in various versions with Black slaves in attendance, is a moralizing condemnation of vice and the material mores of a society benefiting from slavery, or actually a gentle and affectionate ribbing of the behaviors of this strata of society, in which Hogarth was trying to ingratiate himself. In this instance we may see Hogarth as complicit in perpetuating colonialist stereotypes of slavery and oppression.

William Hogarth, “Southwark Fair” (1733), oil on canvas (image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

If the overarching aim of this show is, as it seems, to uncover and belatedly condemn the racist elements of these artworks, it misses an important point. Yes, much of the art contains unacceptable imagery as it reflects social and racial hierarchies of the time. But why assemble the most significant grouping of Hogarths from far and wide simply to sweep it wholesale into this bucket, without indicating why calling out the faults in historical artworks is important to our understanding of our world today? Or, likewise, discussing the ambiguity of satire, which allows the artist to position himself as an external critic and be complicit in the critiqued acts. This same positional ambiguity enables much ingrained racism and white privilege still. It is a fact that social systems, and thus daily lives, in the UK and abroad are shaped by the horrors of slavery and colonialism, but in seeking out and condemning artifacts from the past the curators of this and similarly themed exhibitions risk historicizing racism. Rather, we should relate it to today’s very real and still entrenched racism and sexism. In short, what can we learn from these artworks if we hold them up as mirrors?

It is never a pleasure to address curatorial missteps when an exhibition has at its center a very urgent and honorable desire to condemn outdated racist views and stereotypes. Despite its shortcomings and sometimes muddled delivery, we should nonetheless admire the curators’ effort to reevaluate Hogarth whom, for a long while, has received a free pass under the all-forgiving umbrella of “satire.” One of British art’s most revered eccentric characters should not be exempt from criticism and the curators should be credited for creating a conversation around the issue in the first place. An important takeaway from the show is the encouragement more than ever to consider the societal and historical context in which art is made; in short, not to simply take its message at face value, which is a core principle of investigative art history.

Hogarth and Europe continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through 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.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...