A Rake's Progress: David Hockney's Reinterpretation of William Hogarth's Works

An image of one of David Hockney's prints for A Rake's Progress, showing Hockney’s own floating head in red at the corner of the image, looking away from the bed on which lies a dead body. The deceased is watched over by an angel, praying at a single rose.Death In Harlem © David Hockney 1963
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David Hockney

David Hockney

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The revisitation of historical works has been the subject of much interest for the artists of our time. It allows them to situate themselves in the realm of art history, reinterpreting traditional themes and fostering a dialogue between the past and present. In David Hockney’s reinterpretation of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, it is possible to witness the fascinating contrast and connection between these two artists, separated by centuries yet united in their depiction of a young man's journey through life and vice.

Hogarth's 18th century series serves as a moral satire set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing English society, while Hockney’s 20th-century version transforms this narrative into a deeply personal and culturally resonant exploration of identity and social norms. Through examining each series, it is possible to witness the evolution of artistic expression and the timeless nature of human experiences, as mirrored in the arts.

An image of scene three of Hogarth's Rake's Progress, which depicts a riotous scene on the combined brothel and the restaurant Rose Tavern. The protagonist Tom is shown drunk with his sword at his side and surrounded by prostitutes, is sprawling in a chair, with one foot on a table. Beside him is a rod and lantern, which he stole during his nocturnal wanderings in the streets. Two of the women are stealing Tom's watch. In the doorway a female street singer makes an appearance.Image © Public Domain / The Tavern © William Hogarth 1732-33

Historical Context: Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress

Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress is a series of paintings that act as vivid historical documents, capturing the essence of 18th-century English society. Created in the 1730s, this series of eight paintings tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a young man who squanders his fortune on luxurious living, prostitution, and gambling, ultimately ending up in a debtor's prison and a madhouse. The period in which it was created was marked by significant social and economic changes: the rise of the middle class, or the "middling sort" as they were known then, brought about a shift in cultural values. This emerging class sought to distinguish themselves from the aristocracy and the lower classes through their excellent moral conduct and work ethic. Hogarth, coming from such a background, was keenly aware of this and often incorporated moral narratives in his works, using them as a tool for social commentary.

A Rake’s Progress is in many ways a satirical portrayal of the aristocracy and their perceived moral decay. Hogarth was critical of the hedonistic lifestyles of the upper classes and used the main character to exemplify the dangers of such excess. In showcasing Rakewell's downfall, Hogarth was telling a cautionary tale that served as a larger critique of a social system that allowed the privileged few to live in opulence while many struggled in poverty. Hogarth's series vividly captures the bustling spirit of London in the 18th century. The paintings depict various settings, from taverns and gambling houses to insane asylums, offering a glimpse into the urban landscape and its many vices. This portrayal was a reflection of the anxieties and fascinations of the time, as the city was seen both as a land of opportunity and a place of moral corruption.

Hogarth’s series was an influential piece of art that inspired many subsequent artists, including David Hockney. Its' ability to weave a narrative that is simultaneously entertaining and morally instructive ensures its place as a seminal work in the canon of Western art.

The Evolution of Satire in Art: From Hogarth to Hockney

The 18th century saw widespread use of satire, both in visual and mass media. Having long acted as a powerful tool for social commentary, satire offers artists a way to critique, ridicule, or highlight societal issues – often with wit and sharp insight. Hogarth is often hailed as the grandfather of modern satirical visual art. As society evolved, so did the themes and techniques of satirical art: the 19th and early 20th centuries saw artists like Honoré Daumier and James Gillray, who used caricature to criticise political and social issues, focusing on the absurdities and vices of individuals in power. This period marked a shift from moralising narratives to more direct – usually biting – commentary on contemporary events and figures. The advent of photography, film and digital media, brought new dimensions to satirical art.

Hockney’s own interpretation of A Rake’s Progress in the 1960s exemplifies the modern evolution of satirical art. Hockney’s version, a series of etchings, is both a homage to Hogarth and a personal narrative. His adaptation reflects the contemporary social landscape, including his own experiences as a young artist. In contemporary times, satire in art has become even more diverse and nuanced. Artists like Banksy use street art to comment on political and social issues, combining dark humour with a stark, impactful visual style. The digital age has also seen the rise of meme culture, where satire is disseminated rapidly online, reflecting and shaping public opinion on current events.

The evolution of satire in art from Hogarth to Hockney and beyond demonstrates the enduring power and adaptability of this genre. While the methods and media have evolved, the core purpose remains: to reflect, critique, and often challenge the status quo using humour. In every era, satirical art provides a unique lens through which we can view and understand the complexities of our society.

David Hockney's Modern Twist on Hogarth's Classic Series

Hockney's reinterpretation of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress is a fascinating study in how contemporary artists can breathe new life into classic works. Hockney's series, created in 1963, pays homage to the 18th century masterpiece while reimagining it in a way that speaks to the modern audience, reflecting the social and personal narratives of his time. Hockney's version consists of a series of sixteen etchings that diverge significantly from Hogarth's narrative: Hockney's series is autobiographical, depicting his experiences as a young artist moving from England to the United States. This personal touch transforms the series from a general moral tale to a specific, intimate journey of self-discovery and expression. This reinterpretation must also be viewed in the context of the 1960s, a period that saw the rise of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and a growing questioning of traditional values. Hockney, openly gay at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in many places, infused his work with themes of sexual identity and liberation.

While Hogarth used oil paintings and later engravings for his series, Hockney chose etchings, a medium that allowed for precision and experimentation. His style is markedly different from Hogarth's, featuring simple, largely monochrome compositions with a less narrative-driven approach. The imagery in Hockney’s series is less literal and more symbolic, often playing with visual metaphors and surreal elements to convey emotions and experiences. Hockney's reinterpretation demonstrates how classic works can be reimagined to maintain their relevance across different eras.

It is notable that the reinterpretation such a satirical series turned out to be so delightfully ironic since, of course, Hockney turned out to not be such a rake after all; while it would have been impossible to know at the time, he is now one of the most successful living artists, widely praised for his boundless creativity and talent for innovation. His autobiographical depictions of rejection and despair, euphoria and encouragement, are deeply touching and intimate, allowing the viewer glimpses into the artist’s inner world.

Decoding the Symbolism in Hockney’s A Rake's Progress

Hockney's reinterpretation of A Rake’s Progress is infused with a rich tapestry of symbolism and artistic nuances. This series, while telling a personal story, is also a complex visual narrative where colour and surrealist compositions play significant roles in conveying deeper meanings and emotional depth. Hockney’s choice to primarily use a monochrome palette in this series is a deliberate artistic decision that sets a particular tone for the narrative. This limited colour scheme creates a sense of timelessness and universality, allowing the viewer to focus more on the subject matter. However, the strategic use of red in certain elements breaks this monotony, drawing the viewer’s attention to specific details. This selective use of colour is both an aesthetic choice and a symbolic one. Red, often associated with passion, danger and intensity, highlights key moments in the narrative, underscoring their significance in the protagonist's journey. For example, red might be used to accentuate a particular character, object, or setting, subtly indicating its importance or the emotional intensity of the scene. In Disintegration, for example: the red cloud above the protagonists’ head as he examines an advert for whiskey illustrates the psychological turmoil he is going through.

Hockney also incorporates surreal elements into his series, which allows him to explore and express complex emotional and psychological states. This surrealist approach enables him to transcend the limitations of realistic representation, giving him the freedom to depict the inner experiences of his protagonist in a more visceral and impactful way. Surreal imagery often defies logic and conventional interpretation, inviting viewers to delve into a deeper, more introspective understanding of the narrative. In The Wallet Begins To Empty, a staircase is removed of all context, only serving as a device to illustrate the character’s descent into despair. In Cast Aside, a bust of the protagonist is literally fed to a serpent-like figure. Each character, whether a direct representation of a real person or a more archetypal figure, carries with it layers of interpretation, reflecting various aspects of the protagonist’s identity, societal roles, and emotional states. The use of distorted or exaggerated figures, dream-like landscapes, and improbable scenarios are employed in order to convey the feelings of disorientation, alienation or liberation that the protagonist experiences. These elements can be seen as metaphors for the inner turmoil, confusion, and enlightenment that define the journey of the modern 'rake.'

Cultural Reflections: How Each Rake's Progress' Mirrors Its Era

Hogarth's and Hockney's versions of A Rake’s Progress are remarkable for their deep insights into the cultural and societal landscapes of their respective times. Separated by centuries, these works reflect the values, concerns, and societal dynamics in which they were created. In the 1730s, Hogarth's provided a vivid portrayal of 18th-century English society, a time characterised by the rise of the middle class, increasing urbanisation, and the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution. His series reflects the burgeoning middle class' values and aspirations, serving as a moral lesson on the dangers of extravagance and vice. This moralising tone is a critique of the aristocracy, with Rakewell’s journey of wealth, indulgence, and subsequent downfall symbolising the perceived moral decay of the upper classes. Additionally, the rapid growth of cities like London, bringing a mix of opportunity and vice, is depicted through the complex social dynamics of urban life.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Hockney reinterprets it to mirror the zeitgeist of his time, reflecting the significant cultural shifts of the 20th century. Hockney's version focuses on personal freedom and identity, particularly reflecting his experiences as a gay man. This era's emphasis on individualism, self-expression, and identity exploration is a stark contrast to Hogarth’s moralising tone. The series also echoes the 1960s' significant social changes, including the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and challenges to traditional societal norms. Hockney also explores themes of displacement and foreignness, having moved away from England for the first time, depicting the isolation such a move often brings.

Both Hogarth’s and Hockney’s series serve as cultural barometers: while Hogarth’s work is a window into the moral, social, and economic fabric of 18th-century England, Hockney’s version reflects the cultural revolutions of the 20th century. These series, though centred around a single protagonist, encompass the broader narratives of their times, offering timeless insights into the human condition as shaped by the cultural and societal forces of each era. For Hockney, the series was a canvas to challenge traditional artistic norms and engage in a dialogue with the past, while deeply reflecting his own place in the evolving cultural and societal landscape of our time.

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