A friend was given a couple of tickets to see the Hogarth retrospective at Tate Britain. So fortunately for me, he took me with him last night. It was stunning and if you get the chance, go… For those who don’t know much about him, see Wikipedia’s potted biography. He lived from 1697 to 1764 and was one of the most famous artists of his generation. He painted portraits, wrote art theory, and created a whole new genre of art – the morality tale in sequences of paintings and then prints (which were very popular and which he sold for a fortune!). One of his most famous was the Rake’s Progress. It was amazing to see both the original paintings and then alongside them on the next wall, the engravings made for commercial purposes. These pictures tell the desperate story of the rake, Thomas Rakewell who goes from riches to rags to insanity in 8 all-too-easy steps. The story of the Rake’s Progress is such an archetypal one that it has influenced art, literature and even music since – to the extent that WH Auden & Chester Kallman wrote an opera libretto based on the paintings which was then set to music by Stravinsky. So much for background. The pictures tell the story much better than i could, so follow it for yourself. But it was the 6th image that knocked me for six and is the one I’ve included here.
Gore Vidal once wrote that ‘I told you so’ are the 4 sweetest words in the American lexicon. Well, i suppose he has a point if you are the sort of person who takes smug delight in the downfall of others. And it would be easy to assume that Hogarth is saying something similar with his morality tale – after all, here is a guy who goes from a wealthy merchant’s home to insanity in the original Bedlam (Bethlehem hospital in London) via ‘you name it’. But if one has any compassion at all, one is drawn into the story willing him to stop, full of regrets and ‘if onlys’ – especially when there are various moments that could halt his ‘progress’, as exemplified by his former girlfriend Sarah Young who tries to save him (pictures I, IV & V).
The thing is, after seductions, prostitutes, marriage for money, and finally losing everything by gambling, in picture VI, we see him shaking his fist in a Covent Garden gambling den. He has his back to all those who have taken everything off him – so he’s not blaming them. He is in fact shaking his fist at God. GOD!? Hogarth perfectly illustrates the twisted mentality that we so easily get ourselves into. For Tom had been resolutely heading down this path, despite the moments en route that should have stopped him in his tracks. Hogarth is clearly saying it is all his fault – he should take responsibility for it rather than blaming anyone else, let alone God. This is relevant these days since we are constantly finding new things to blame for our mistakes and wrongdoings (like genetics, biochemistry, parents, education, society, other races, other religions etc etc etc). None of us wants to accept responsibility for any wrong-doing – although we’re all too quick to claim credit for the good things. That’s pretty ironic really: we blame God for OUR wrongs and then claim credit for things that can hardly be classed as achievements, but ought actually be recognised as HIS gifts (like beauty, brains, talents, happy circumstances etc).
But it is also tragic, because it totally slanders God. For he gives his warnings, and he provides plenty of wisdom. And to top it all, his reaction to anyone who comes to their senses and takes responsibility for what has gone wrong is as far from ‘I told you so’ as it is possible to get. He welcomes with open arms and through Christ’s death on the cross, amazingly forgives! The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) illustrates this wonderfully. So while we’re in the realm of paintings, here is one of my favourite. Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal – just look at the tenderness of the Father’s face and embrace; then click on the picture to see the whole thing and notice the incomprehension of the older brother in the shadows (who according to Jesus really couldn’t handle the forgiveness and is presumably precisely the ‘I told you so’ sort who would be satisfied if his younger brother got everything he deserved). If only people didn’t shake their fist at God and realised what he is really like…