Race to the end
The Tate’s latest offering reveals more about its curators than its art
Hogarth and Europe at the Tate is ostensibly an exhibition about everyone’s favourite Georgian satirist, which brings together select items of William Hogarth’s work and sets them in the context of some of his European contemporaries and of the societies of their day. The Progresses of both Rake and Harlot are here, and so is “Gin Lane”; so are that lovely terracotta bust from the National Portrait Gallery, and the outrageous portrait of the notorious hellhound Francis Dashwood as his saintly namesake.
The range of exhibits on display, mainly paintings and engravings, takes visitors from London to Venice, Paris, and Amsterdam; it includes pieces by artists like Johann Zoffany and Cornelis Troost, and — delightfully —Canaletto’s “Vauxhall Gardens” and “Interior of the Ranelagh Rotunda” from Compton Verney. Hogarth is introduced in the political climate of failed Jacobitism (as represented by his “March to Finchley”) and an emerging sense of Britain against all comers, no more so well-expressed than in his allegorical “Gate of Calais”, with the engorged Catholic Church and chastened, emaciated France still slavering over a piece of good English beef.
The first room introduces the man himself, ending with his wonderfully humane self-portrait from the Tate’s own collection, “The Painter And His Pug”, which possibly tells us less about Hogarth than it does about the intensive breeding that has cursed those poor stentorian creatures in the centuries since it was painted. Secondary details like Hogarth’s dog frequently have a way of telling us more about a painting than its artist or sitter might originally have intended, and this is not lost on the curators.
Straight through the door, announcements on left and right intone that Alice Insley and Martin Myrone have brought together a large group of consultants and commentators to ensure that visitors do not miss any of the numerous examples of “the entrenchment of racist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes” on display. They include members of Museum Detox, whose website introduces them as people who “identify as non-white”, and “have experience of working in the museums, galleries, libraries, archives, and the heritage sector”.
This earnest approach is not without its challenges. In “Noon” from 1738, for example, the focus on “the Black man and White woman enjoying their tryst” draws attention away from the bawdiness of half the image, and particularly from the witty (if disgusting) joke that hovers on the advertisement above them. About Troost’s mid-century “Misled” — a Lord-of-Misrule type of scene from the Rijksmuseum, containing a large white bottom with a face painted on it — Raimi Gbadamosi contends that “the two image-punctuating trumpeters in blackface” summoning the crowd are in fact “a device to separate people”.
Dr Gbadamosi doesn’t explain how the two figures function in an exactly opposite way to how they appear, nor how they and the pasty fat fundament on the window-ledge between them represent “Racism and White supremacy” respectively. It’s an original take and it would be good to be able to understand it more clearly, especially as it ignores what is surely the actual joke of the picture: the two po-faced Dutch Protestants right at its centre, rigidly unmoved by the scene that is developing around them and missing out on all the fun.
As the various rooms offer up their treasures many reasonable points are made, but in places they verge on projected speculation. It’s not obvious how the artist Sonia Barrett deduces that the “colonial style” chair in Hogarth’s “Self-Portrait Painting the Comic Muse” must have been “made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people”. It’s actually a classic Georgian elbow-chair, with vase-back splat, cabriole legs, and pad feet, so it might equally have been made from home-grown English walnut. “Could the chair also stand-in”, she asks, “for all those unnamed black and brown people?” Well, maybe. Then again, it might just be a chair.
Elsewhere, a black man stands attentively in the corner of a room not because he is a servant, but because he is black. Another black man is “caricatured” even though everyone else also looks ridiculous because the whole picture is a caricature, which appears in the context of the life and work of a famous caricaturist. “Why is the body of the enslaved man in the right foreground so small”, asks Cora Gilroy-Ware in relation to John Greenwood’s “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam”, “compared to the European-descended men around him?” There is a white man of identical size standing two inches away. The distinguished Lubaina Himid’s contribution is written, literally and openly, from her imagination.
This all comes to a head in the last room, where little children performing “The Indian Emperor”, in a painting from the 1730s, wear feathers in their hair. It is solemnly stated that they are therefore “appropriating (inaccurately) the role and dress of the Aztec women” and thus “playing into colonialist tropes”. By the end the curatorial finger-wagging is so relentless that it risks tipping over into the ludicrous and undermining the whole show — and right at the point where it gets really interesting, with a discussion of Hogarth’s few female contemporaries.
We know that the values of our society are different from those of two and a half centuries ago; it would be odd if they were not. The historically-documented iniquities of our forebears chasten our pride and prick our conscience, but in Hogarth and Europe the Tate has gathered together some of the finest work of one of the best-known British artists of the eighteenth century and then lined up a procession of talking heads to tell everyone how ghastly life in his day must have been. It’s a masochist’s dream, and just the thing to sharpen the appetite before lunch in the Rex Whistler Restaurant — if it were not closed until further notice.
Hogarth and Europe is at Tate Britain until 20 March 2022
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe