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Hogarth vs Gilbert & George:
who is the artist a la mode?

By Melanie Abrams

The London Tates are currently holding two retrospectives of celebrated artists from very different eras. One focuses on the 18th century satirist, Hogarth and the other on the contemporary artists and “living sculptures”, Gilbert & George. Yet what is striking is that it is the Hogarth show which appears to be more relevant to viewers, rather than the latter day artists. Not just in my opinion, but from others who are crowding, three people deep, into Hogarth’s world.

Hogarth: Marriage A-la-Mode: The Tête à Tête
William Hogarth
Marriage A-la-Mode: The Tête à Tête 1735
© The National Gallery, London

It is the subject matter of the Hogarthian pictures which seems to resonate most, as the social and political issues which are pilloried so mercilessly are easily re-interpreted in a modern day, almost tabloid context. Subjects such as the national lottery, feverish financial market speculation that ends in collapse, political corruption, crime and punishment, marriages of convenience that go disastrously wrong are all on display and, of course, there is plenty of sexual misbehaviour - people in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. All of which are staple fodder in our media today.

One room is even dedicated to the “progress” of two familiar archetypes – the rake and the harlot – where we can revel in their exploits and their comeuppance in the safety of Hogarth’s visual fiction. The rake even ends his days in Bedlam, which is perhaps the 18th century equivalent of The Priory.

Hogarth: First Stage of CrueltyEven the moral messages strike a very contemporaneous chord. The Four Stages of Cruelty, which poses questions about the cruelty of children and what could happen to them as adults if their cruelty is left unchecked, poignantly links with the recent fatal shootings of teenagers by teenagers.

This is not to say that Gilbert & George don’t depict contemporary issues. They do. From gay identity to AIDS and its consequences, to multi-culturalism to their most recent works, the Six Bomb Pictures 2006, which reflect our daily exposure to bomb threats and terror alerts. But the images and messages which they are conveying are overshadowed and perhaps weakened by the repeated images of themselves, their body parts and bodily functions throughout the 15 rooms, foyer and café which make up the exhibition space. As well as the seeming need to shock the viewer with words and titles like, Cunt 1977, Fuck 1977 and Punk Blood Piss Shit Spit 1996 which after a while becomes a little tedious, rather like our reaction to teenagers or pop stars who shout the words for affect.

Despite Gilbert & George’s use of the relatively modern medium of photography, it is the traditional media used by Hogarth (engravings, oils, drawings and woodcuts) and the smaller scale size of the works that maximise the relevance of the subject matter. As these incisive techniques allow us to explore the full details of the works and pick out the various incidents and characters that pack out each picture, up close and personal. It is as if we, the viewer, can choose what we see and how we see or interpret it, rather than being forced to look at Gilbert & George’s view of the world through the magnified and magnificent grids that dominate our vision and the gallery space.

The Hogarth show therefore seems more relevant as his images engage us more viscerally; we become part of the image. We never become part of Gilbert & George’s images. And so perhaps it is this distance that detracts from their relevance.

5 March 2007

Hogarth is at Tate Britain until 29 April and Gilbert & George is at Tate Modern until 7 May 2007

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