Critics’ Picks

David Hockney, Bedlam, 1961–63, etching, aquatint 17 3/4 x 11 1/2".

London

“Progress”

The Foundling Museum
40 Brunswick Square
June 6 - September 7

The eight-plate engraved series of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, published in 1735 and currently on view at the Foundling Museum, tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a merchant’s son who arrives in London to remake himself as an aristocrat but whose vanity and profligacy land him in debtor’s prison and the madhouse.

“Progress” brings together responses to Hogarth’s series produced between 1961 and 2014 by four artists, three of whom—David Hockney, Grayson Perry, and Yinka Shonibare—enjoy near-Hogarthian status in Britain. (The museum also commissioned a set of drawings for the occasion by emerging artist Jessie Brennan.) While this may seem dully straightforward as curatorial structure, it proves wise given the multiwork, narrative complexity of the responses, particularly Perry’s six-tapestry series The Vanity of Small Differences, 2012.

With Perry’s tapestries in such close proximity to the Hogarth work, it is an absorbing game to follow Perry’s symbolic substitutions—the French press for the gambler’s wine, L. S. Lowry for Titian, and the self-satisfaction of modern yuppies for the posturing of old-world aristocracy. In the eighteenth century Hogarth cannily exploited the Foundling Hospital, then a home for abandoned babies, as an exhibition site outside the typical channels of royal patronage. Perry, too, commits to expanding a public for art: His tapestries’ imagery resulted directly from “All in the Best Possible Taste,” the artist’s Channel 4 television exploration of consumption and identity in British households.

In contrast, Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress, 1961–63, transposes Hogarth’s morality tale into an abstruse private journal, in feverish etching and aquatint, of the artist’s arrival in America. As in the case of “Diary of a Victorian Dandy,” Shonibare’s 1998 series of photographs in which he casts himself as the rake surrounded by cheats and sycophants, Hockney identifies no less with Hogarth as master of ceremonies than with the vulnerable and vain arriviste.