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Subversion and wit, 18th-century-style

By Chandra Speeth

If you told me as I was shopping classes this winter that by the end of February I'd be standing among the whores and thieves, I'd never have believed you. But there it is, and the British Art Center is endorsing it proudly: "Among the Whores and Thieves: William Hogarth and The Beggar's Opera." The exhibit showing at the BAC until April 6. The title is the BAC's ploy to lure sex-starved thrill-seekers into the titillating realm of 18th-century culture.

Is there any period in history less sexy than the era that generated Richardson's Pamela and Wedgwood pottery? Aren't we better off looking for intrigue in some other artistic venue? The BAC's exhibition obviously has none of the kick of Duchamp's urinal or Serrano's Piss Christ. But truly effective satire, à l'anglais, requires some measure of subtlety. Fortunately, this exhibition has subtlety--in scads.

With traditional British reserve, the BAC puts Hogarth's two oils of the same scene from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera into the context of 18th- century London. If you ever wanted a crash course in the culture and politics of the time, here it is. Collected in three small rooms are the early print editions of The Beggar's Opera; political cartoons of then-Prime Minister Robert Walpole as colossus mooning his audience; satiric engravings of Italian castrati; Blake etchings after Hogarth; and some exquisite etchings and engravings by Hogarth himself.

The proliferation of responses to Gay's opera, Hogarth's work included, hints at the opera's tremendous popularity--popularity due to its genius as a satiric work. Gay's opera was a burlesque upon the effête elitism of Italian opera that had recently caught on with London's upper classes. It champions lower-class masculinity in the figure of swarthy MacHeath, the lascivious highwayman and hero of the opera.

Hero and anti-hero, in fact; the introduction of Gay's Macheath was also seen as a possible forum for class rebellion. Theater was already viewed as a potentially subversive art form by conservative members of 18th-century British society, in sanctioning deception and the full, dramatic expression of some shocking affections. A ripple of fear ran through the upper classes at this robust character. Macheath would, they feared, provide a role model for the working man to emulate.

The levels of satire and theatricality become further complicated by Hogarth's depiction of the prison scene from The Beggar's Opera. Hogarth brings the burlesque into the realm of high art by representing Macheath in oils, in all the glory of a historical figure. He also brings high art into the realm of satire: his depictions of individuals are caricatures as skillful as those that he creates in some of his most successful etchings. The insistent theatricality of his subject affords Hogarth an excellent outlet for caricature.

In the scene, Macheath, enfettered and threatened with the gallows, stands in a prison/stage-ground, sporting a jaunty red coat and a lopsided expression of defiance. Hogarth has reduced the expressions of the onlookers at his trial to the bare minimum of caricature--their features appear only as splotches of paint on the canvas; their eyeholes and mouths gaping in shadow, their overhanging noses made the more grotesque by the lack of painterly detail. Meanwhile, Macheath's two wives, dripping with lace and satin, beseech their respective fathers to drop the charges against him. In Hogarth's first version of the scene, the kneeling wives are almost cruelly doubled, their fathers both staving them off with an identical wave of the hand. Call it bigamy extended to the realm of metaphor. In this doubling lurks the polygamous tendencies of Hogarth's satire, marrying theater, fine art, politics, and history with burlesque and ridicule.

These paintings are some of Hogarth's first oils, although he had been an engraver for 30 years. Though in places the technique may seem a little dismal, his talent for caricature still translates very well into the medium. But this is translation with a difference: while Hogarth's engravings show his sharp caricatures as pre-fab types, the fluency of humorous expression which he achieves in his oil paintings reflects the process of forming such caricatures. Hogarth is, as one critic has so accurately called him, "an artist who thinks in paint."

The BAC's exhibition, like Hogarth's art, is a thinking one. In assembling these relics of 18th-century culture, it leaves the viewer to do the final synthesis and call it humor. It is evident--both from the care with which the BAC has assembled this exhibition and the fact that so much remains on the subject of The Beggar's Opera for the BAC to access--that humor of this thinking kind is humor that endures.

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