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Modern moral subjects

George Grosz was inspired by William Hogarth but Grosz gets better treatment from the Royal Academy than Hogarth gets from the Tate, says Norbert Lynton

By Norbert Lynton   May 1997

Hogarth wanted to be an English painter of grand manner history subjects, breaking the foreigner’s monopoly in high art. But, no, he would not go to Rome where that manner was to be acquired. The Raphael cartoons were on hand, a high renaissance outstation on English soil. For the rest, engravings of great art would inform him. Reynolds, younger and more single-minded, went to Rome in 1750 for two years. By then, Hogarth had invented an alternative role for himself, painting narrative series of “modern moral subjects” (his friend Henry Fielding called them “comic history paintings”) and selling prints of these and of London scenes, while also writing his anti-academic treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, and painting his servants’ portraits in one of the loosest and loveliest pictures of the age.

Critics are now asking whether Hogarth the painter, as against the printmaker, was up to scratch. He was born in central London in 1697, and a Tate exhibition is offered by way of tercentenary celebration. It feels off-hand, dully assembled in two ill-favoured rooms and consisting of paintings only. Not a generous selection either: 20 from the Tate’s own stock, 11 from other sources. But what a brilliant painter he was when he could be bothered-when, that is, he was pleasing himself. Those servants, for example, and his self-portrait.

Hogarth was certainly one of the century’s best painters, alongside Watteau, Chardin and Tiepolo. The self-portrait is stuck in a corner and in poor light, but nearby is everyone’s favourite, the Shrimp Girl, and the simple but brilliant Mrs Salter. The portrait of his friend Captain Thomas Coram-a self-made man who spent his last years creating the Foundling Hospital, which Hogarth turned into the first gallery of contemporary British art-is much too grand for a commoner. It takes on van Dyck, and by implication all them foreigners, to prove that Hogarth can pingere with the best of them, and it is a triumph: good-natured humanity shining through formalities invented to make kings and dukes presentable. These prove Hogarth’s case as painter. For further evidence go and see the Marriage ?  la Mode series in the National Gallery and the A Rake’s Progress and An Election series in the Soane Museum. They may make you think that nothing changes, but try repeating another of Hogarth’s titles: O the Roast Beef of Old England!

The great aphorist Lichtenberg wrote a commentary on Hogarth’s prints, setting their human truth above the classical perfection promoted by Winckelmann. The Germans have had proprietary feelings for Hogarth ever since, but no German artist has valued him more than George Grosz (born 1893 as Georg). He decided that Weimar Germany needed “modern moral subjects” and indeed it did, not least in those early years, up to 1925, when Grosz did his best work. Coming out of Realism, Expressionism and war, he joined the Dadaists to enrol in the other war, communists versus fascists. He was prosecuted for blasphemy and indecency and for “bringing the army into disrepute,” in fact for publishing enduring emblems that hurt.

The Berlin of George Grosz at the Royal Academy is well curated and displayed in the Sackler Galleries. In the Friends Room is a show of cartoons by our own satirists, Steve Bell, Scarfe, Steadman. We love them all. But after Grosz, Scarfe looks like a naughty boy; even Bell (my favourite) is more comedian than scourge.

Hogarth, who insisted he was creating characters, not caricatures, worked with sympathy as well as a sharp eye. Daily life provided texts, the Baroque gave his art fullness. German art historians see Hogarth as a Celt. His father came to London from Westmoreland planning to write a Latin dictionary and run a Latin-only coffee house, but spent five years in gaol for debt. His son’s art certainly does not look English beside Reynolds and Gainsborough. His forms curl across the canvas like Celtic ornament, they say.

How German was Grosz? His grotesque types strike us as unchallengeably German, although you can find British specimens among them if you want. What makes them unforgettable is that they are beautiful. Not with Hogarth’s warmth but a cold beauty that turns out to be the beauty taught by Winckelmann and Flaxman. Grosz availed himself of Cubist-Futurist fragmentation, but essentially he was a neo-classicist and thus international. He was also a misanthrope, except that he idolised America. That is why next to Hogarth he is narrow, and next to Goya remote. When he emigrated to America his art went soft.
Hogarth the painter

Tate Gallery, London

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