The Tate might have invented a whole new genre of exhibition here. Most of the time, big sweeping shows – like this one about William Hogarth and his European art pals – are celebrations of the art on display. But this is so full of criticism and negativity that it’s almost like they want you to hate it.
Hogarth was the ultimate chronicler of everyday eighteenth century London life, an art superstar of his era who documented the wildness, debauchery and moral decrepitude that surrounded him with humour and a lot of sneering superiority.
And this show is full of all of that. There’s ‘The March of the Guards to Finchley’ with its soldiers falling about on the piss, groping women and having fist fights, there’s ‘The Gate of Calais’ with its malnourished French soldiers and big fat greedy Catholic priest, there’s ‘Southwark Fair’ with its endless booze and violence. Then you get his masterpieces, ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ and ‘A Rake’s Progress’, two tales of people following the wrong paths and suffering all the brutal consequences.
Hogarth is clearly a judgemental, moralistic, conservative old sod. But damn he had a knack for showing how messed up society could be.
The show also tries to place Hogarth in the context of wider European art, and that’s where things get unwieldy. There are huge maps of London, Paris, Amsterdam and Venice, there are society portraits and still lifes by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Cornellis Troost. It’s a mess. I left with genuinely no idea what most of this art was doing here. Is this a show about Hogarth, Europe, satire, society painting or eighteenth century cities? It ends up being none of the above.
But the real issue comes in the Tate’s eagerness to make up for past mistakes. The museum took a lot of flack for showing a horribly racist 1688 portrait by Benedetto Gennari in its 2020 ‘British Baroque’ exhibition. Critics felt like the Tate didn’t do enough to make clear the links between power, Baroque art and colonialism.
And they’re not going to be accused of that again, because this show is filled with long, critical wall texts by artists, academics and historians pointing out the problematic elements in Hogarth’s work.
And, oh boy, there are plenty. There is rape here, there are slaves and hook-nosed Jews and Black beggars, there’s racism, violence and sexism. A lot of it is problematic, but a lot of it is also intentionally satirical, and a lot of it – like Hogarth’s portraits of his servants – is just what life was like 250 years ago. All the accusations of moralising levelled at Hogarth here start to feel a little hypocritical.
Reevaluating the art cannon is a good thing, and I agree with the majority of what's said here. But by spending the whole show telling you how awful Hogarth and his mates were, this just ends up feeling like an exhibition of paintings by a bunch of racists. If they're so keen to point out how bad all of this is, why did they even bother?