Hogarth studies are sometimes a blood sport, with the British goring the Americans and the Americans thumping the British right back, as the Germans and French line up on the side of one or the other, though mostly with the Americans. These attacks are, in tone and substance, often bitterly personal, amounting to ad hominem broadsides more than volleys in an antagonism between a new kind of art history and an old, between one generation of critics and another. (Richard Dorment’s review of Paulson’s Hogarth’s Sacred Parody (NYRB, May 27, 1993) initiated an exchange; in a postmodern twist on this international teacup tempest, Paulson points out that Dorment is not actually “a true-born Englishman,” but a fellow American from Columbia University masquerading as British.) It is therefore not surprising to see this conflict surface in Mr. Krysmanski’s Hogarth’s Hidden Parts. In his engaging, provocative, and encyclopedic book, Mr. Krysmanski catechizes “some twentieth-century critics such as Ralph Edwards” who attack Frederick Antal, Paulson, and their followers for “wild speculation and fanciful surmise.” In Mr. Krysmanski’s view, it is Edwards and others who are “blind for [sic] Hogarth’s pictorial allusions.”
Not that Hogarth’s Hidden Parts needs to import hullabaloo, for it dishes up god’s plenty of its own controversy. And that quite deliberately: “This present, rather provocative book is also about this ‘other Hogarth.’ It deals primarily with the suggestive motifs in his art and the presumably libertine aspects of his life, but also with his blasphemous borrowing from the Old Masters that are frequently to be found in his imagery.” So Hidden Parts is both a commentary on Hogarth’s prints and paintings as well as a biography of the artist; or rather it is a biography of his life as “an unbridled hedonist.” Mr. Krysmanski takes [End Page 260] the view that these features of the engraver’s life and work “have already been described elsewhere in the literature on Hogarth but often couched in shamefaced or indignant terms. Others have escaped viewers’ attention so far.”
He correctly notes that many academic writers (especially Americans) are prudish about their subjects. It is fair to predict that even today works of scholarship flaunting the words “desire” or “erotic” in their titles, will, when written by Americans, have very little in them of the venereal or libidinous. In Hogarth’s Hidden Parts, there is a great deal which is new, valuable, and erotic. When the book argues that the tassel of the preacher’s cushion resembles a penis, I was skeptical, but looking at the image I found a penis where Mr. Krysmanski promised one.
By contrast, I was not convinced by the writer’s suggestion that the cocked hat that hangs on the cubical side of the pew in which Francis Goodchild and his master’s daughter sing takes the form of a delta “and could therefore be interpreted as a reference to the vulva.” This reading also illustrates one of the few annoying features of Mr. Krysmanski’s admirably straightforward method. When he has an outrageous interpretation to propose, he often advances it obliquely, sometimes as a question and sometimes as a tentative notion (“could therefore be interpreted”), so as to avoid responsibility for his iconoclasm or to leave himself wiggle room.
Still more improbable than the vulva identification are Mr. Krysmanski’s statements about Hogarth’s sexual orientation. According to the writer, “One may even speculate whether Hogarth could not have had some bisexual (or even sodomitical) preferences.” But Mr. Krysmanski goes further, wondering if the artist “had a predilection not only for young boys but for young girls too. . . .” Lest there be any doubt about that view, the biographer repeats it later, writing about Hogarth’s “possible paedophilic leanings (which in the artist’s time were apparently not viewed with the same degree of abhorrence as we do today). . . .” For the notion that Hogarth was a pedophile, Mr. Krysmanski offers no proof...