- Hogarth's Hidden Parts: Satiric Allusion, Erotic Wit, Blasphemous Bawdiness and Dark Humour in Eighteenth-Century English Art
In Hogarth’s Hidden Parts, Bernd Krysmanski aims to turn the idea of the “good” Hogarth on its head. The author questions Hogarth’s moralizing agendas, his socially engaged and reformist identities, and argues instead that he was a “bawdy hedonist,” a malicious blasphemer, possibly even a pedophile. The book, which is intended as a compendium of all that is “smutty, lecherous and blasphemous” (9) in Hogarth’s art, is nearly four hundred pages long. The tone is brisk and the author covers a large amount of material with efficacy. The first two chapters question the “traditional view” (12) of Hogarth as a simple moralist. The “bawdy facts” of the art are laid out in chapter three, while chapter four, which accounts for nearly half the book, aims to reach a deeper understanding of the artist’s motivations. Krysmanski’s claim is that Hogarth included shocking, irreverent, and sexually allusive motifs in publicly circulated images. The reasons for this would be threefold: first, because he was playing to contemporary taste; second, because the visual interest of an allusion is amplified when it is stumbled upon by the viewer. The third reason would be provocation, in that the motifs were placed as subtle bait to irritate the artist’s enemies, and notably the connoisseurs of the polite.
What are these “bawdy facts”? Mostly obscure or suggestive actions, incidental details, and occasionally highly visible or crude actions (for example, fumbling hands, exposed breasts, masturbation, urination). There are some sexual puns and scatological allusions, and many readings into the imagery of Hogarth’s possible use of blasphemy, sarcasm, and dark humor. Typically, though, we are talking about visual fragments that have been lifted from densely allusive imagery or from unpublished works and abandoned sketches. Images are never grasped in their totality or analyzed for their unity. Instead, incidental details are lifted and [End Page 335] combined with others of an apparently similar nature, so that gradually, through conflation and repetition, bawdy detail is turned into a bawdy nature.
Methodologically, the image is understood to function as “a mirror of the mind of the artist” (9) who was acting in conformity with contemporary society. The author’s argument rests on the assurance that there is a discernible symmetry between an artist’s intention and a visual symbol, and indeed that personal intentions can be recovered many centuries later. As recovering a contemporary mentalité means immersing the reader in great rafts of scholarship, it inevitably entails long digressions—back into history or sideways into society, or into other cultural materials. At work within Krysmanski’s text we also find two intertwined, mutually reinforcing myths: one repeats an established and maybe cherished or nostalgic view of the eighteenth century as “lustful and phallic” (182); the other works with the idea of the artist as a straightforward moralist, as if this concept, which dates from John Trusler’s Hogarth Moralised (1768), still had purchase in contemporary scholarship.
Overall, one is left with the impression that we are being told not to like Hogarth because of the subjects he chose to depict; that he was lewd and had an advanced taste for vice and smut. Aside from several claims that are impossible to substantiate (notably, that Hogarth was abusing the Foundling children rather than saving them) essentially the author recenters the use of bawdy allusion in order to recycle an earlier argument about “anti-iconography” (367) or Hogarth’s use of art-historical quotation for polemical pictorial ends. In conclusion, Hogarth’s Hidden Parts is a tour de force in Hogarthian bibliography, but only because its most useful contribution would be as a work of reference rather than as an art historical study. Scholars with an interest in the “everything and anything” of Hogarthian scholarship may well find the publication useful.