Monday, November 12, 2007

Stages of Cruelty

Cynicism wasn’t born on November 10, 1697, but it’s greatest artistic practitioner—William Hogarth—was. In sequential works such as his Marriage a-la-Mode, Hogarth fathered the comic strip and the editorial cartoon as the English speaking world would come to understand it. In this scene from Marriage a-la-Mode, titled The Marriage Contract (above, from 1743), Hogarth dismisses the idea of romantic love in his vision of eighteenth-century marriage, showing it for the business transaction it had become among certain circles of society. Hogarth created images overflowing with life, teeming with tiny details that demand close reading of every inch. Every facial expression and hand gesture tells a story of the farce and cruelty Hogarth saw all around himself in eighteenth-century London.

I first encountered Hogarth as an undergraduate as part of a class titled Dryden, Swift, and Pope. The instructor masterfully navigated Hogarth’s designs to show how he presented in pictures what those poets presented in words, especially the more caustic selections of Swift and Pope. I’ve never forgotten how plugged in Hogarth was to the culture around him, from high brow to low brow. Hogarth could paint his friend David Garrick as Richard III (above, from 1745) at one moment and at the next show a mob taunting a cuckold or a man rendered noseless by syphilis. This universality of Hogarth’s vision places him on almost a Shakespearean level, surpassing even the bard when it came to understanding the psychology of human cruelty.

In The Four Stages of Cruelty, Hogarth analyzes the evolution of cruelty within the human heart. With great psychological astuteness, Hogarth pictures cruelty to animals as the first stage, showing Nero, the protagonist of the series, hurting small animals before moving on to whipping horses. (Hogarth was far ahead of his time, since most psychologists today believe that cruelty to animals in childhood leads to greater and greater cruelty as an adult.) Soon, Nero turns to a life of crime, which ends in the last stage, The Reward of Cruelty (above, from 1751). Here, Nero’s lifeless body, after a hanging for his crimes, undergoes dissection before a crowd of medical students, the common fate of condemned criminals at that time. The wheel comes full circle, as the one-time dissector of little creatures becomes dissected himself. At the same time, Hogarth shows how society perpetuates the cycle of cruelty in disrespecting Nero’s corpse, adding more cruelty to the growing mountain of unfeeling. Hogarth came from poor beginnings and saw his own father mercilessly thrown into a debtor’s prison. Rather than take part in that endless cycle, Hogarth broke the chain and put his own spin on it.

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