The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue

William Hogarth: Cruelty and Humor

William Hogarth, Self-Portrait, ca. 1735, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

On View
Morgan Library & Museum
William Hogarth: Cruelty and Humor
May 24 – September 22, 2019
New York

In a marginal note, William Hogarth (1697–1764) summarizes his artistic program: “to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer, my picture was my stage.” He echoes a Baroque esthetic, which also treated the canvas as a stage where the viewer's attention would be focused on a social, political, or religious lesson. Cruelty and Humor modifies that vision of the world as a stage: while Hogarth attacks drunkenness in Beer Street and Gin Lane (both 1751) and cruelty to animals and humans in The Four Stages of Cruelty, he adds satire and parody to the mix. The result is a new, public art that infuses energy into a derivative British art world, changing it forever.

The nineteen images assembled here form a parabola: first, Hogarth's 1735 self-portrait, then a 1721 satiric drawing mocking the South Sea Bubble affair (roughly the equivalent of our own 1994–2000 dot-com bubble); then, a leap forward to the heart of the show, Hogarth's work of 1750–51. The show ends with the late melancholy drawing The Bathos, from 1764, the year of Hogarth's death. Here Father Time reclines on the ruins of a world and its art, with the palate held proudly by the Hogarth of 1735 tossed on the junk heap.

The 1735 self-portrait, borrowed from the Yale British Art Center, shows a vigorous, well-dressed, grinning young man: this Hogarth is a total success. His Harlot's Progress series of 1731 and his Rake's Progress of 1733–35 enabled him to engineer the 1734 Engravers' Copyright Act, which protected the intellectual property of graphic artists from being copied by predatory craftsmen of varying competence. Then a career hiatus from which Hogarth emerges in 1743 with his Marriage A-la-Mode series, a satire of upper-class marriage, and for some the high point of his career.

William Hogarth, Gin Street, 1750-51. Red chalk, over traces of black chalk (in left foreground), with graphite, incised with stylus; verso rubbed with red chalk for transfer. The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot.

Then another hiatus, which ends with the two series that dominate this show: the 1751 Beer Street and Gin Lane and the 1751–1752 series The Four Stages of Cruelty. The unifying thread in Hogarth's major works is progress, conceived not as a movement up, but a plunge down from innocence to degradation.

Hogarth's sense of the social purpose of printmaking changes radically with these works. Initially, he employed French engravers to make his copper plates. The French were extraordinary craftsmen, and their meticulous work made every detail visible. "Reading" a Hogarth print is like reading the front page of a newspaper: we see many articles simultaneously until we focus our attention on one. Specific details have immense importance: signs over shops, advertisements, details of costume, the books falling off a table. Hogarth used all of those things to show his audience he was talking about their world.

Hogarth himself engraved the plates for Beer Street, Gin Lane, and The Four Stages of Cruelty, and one of those plates is on view here. He sets aside the finesse of the French engravers in favor of a less nuanced and more brutal technique. He wants to teach his audience a lesson and expects it to experience that lesson at the expense of esthetic fluidity. He perhaps thought he had to sacrifice art in order to make his message explicit, but what he accomplished was to create a new kind of printmaking that resonates all the way to Goya and to Expressionists like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.

To move hard hearts—a people entertained by the theatrical spectacle of public hangings, of dog fighting, cock fighting, of tossing unwanted babies on the trash heap to cry themselves to death—Hogarth had to be direct. Beer Street and Gin Lane, contrasting prints, denounce the gin fad, akin to our crack epidemic, and proclaim the positive side of beer. Beer Street illustrates Ben Franklin's dictum: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” while Gin Lane presents a scene of unmitigated degradation. The Four Stages of Cruelty, while a moral condemnation of cruelty to animals and people, verges on psychology: we wonder why Tom Nero mutilates dogs, beats horses to death, and, finally, slits the throat of a maid, his accomplice in a robbery. There is no question of reform here. Hogarth views cruelty as a moral vice like lust or gluttony which takes hold of a person and turns him into a monster.

William Hogarth, Second Stage of Cruelty, 1750-51. Red chalk, with graphite; incised with stylus; verso rubbed with red chalk for transfer. The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot, 2016.

But Gin Lane moves moral preaching into a new dimension. Set in the same St. Giles slum where The Four Stages of Cruelty takes place, it is a vision of the city as hell. Buildings topple, pawn brokers triumph, no useful work takes place because the workers trade their tools for gin. At the center, Hogarth's greatest parody: to turn the traditional icon of Virgin and Child into horror. A dilapidated woman, her body covered with syphilis sores, takes a bit of snuff. She is so drunk she doesn't notice that her baby, as huge as the Christ child in Pontormo's Madonna of the Long Neck, is sliding into the abyss.

This negation of motherhood, this desecration of the Virgin as mother, is also funny. The utterly grotesque world of Gin Lane puts a smirk of Schadenfreude on our faces. This is the birth of the Black Humor that fascinated the Surrealists, the horrible that is ironically hilarious. We laugh because the image abolishes all our moral values and shows us the horror within us.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues