WeWealth | April 2022

Had we not been in the midst of a conflict, the request made by the Russian Minister of Culture to his Italian counterpart to quickly repatriate the artworks lent to ongoing exhibitions between Milan and Rome would have sounded quite humorous. The same must have occurred in France, with the invitation to quickly return to their country of origin the marvelous pieces of the Morozov collection (of Russian and French ‘origin’) exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton; or, did the urgent request concern only the peninsula? Whatever the answer, the crossed swords of cultural diplomacy rekindle the old torment that has accompanied the history of art and the open question of the ownership of artworks. Not only those acquired by Sotheby’s or Gagosian, but also those extorted, robbed, stolen, and moved under various political and military legitimizations.

Never more so than in times of geopolitical instability, art interacts with the world of assets and safe-haven assets, whether private, business, or national. Locked in banks, protected by frontiers, real or metaphorical walls, artworks speak of finance and ownership. But, now more than ever, it is worth remembering that the language of art – if and when not guided by external logics of power or the market – cares little of ethnic, cultural or political belonging. And that the language of art is intolerant to any kind of barrier, but is rather inclined to cross national borders in search of discussion, different techniques and visions. The idioms of art are such by virtue of their resistance to formal and ideological postures. To quote Virginia Woolf, art, like women, has no country. And, while art ignites intense desires of possession, it does not let itself be possessed beyond its mere and unstable financial equivalent.

Tate Britain’s recent exhibition ‘Hogarth and Europe’ successfully illustrates art’s inborn intolerance to any kind of constriction. Some may be surprised by the title – wasn’t Hogarth a stubborn promoter of national art and a bitter opponent of continental aesthetics? It is true: in a still tentative phase of English art, Hogarth acted for the emancipation of visual culture and its liberation from the subordination to foreign models. However, Hogarth knew that ideas from Holland, France and Italy nourished English art allowing for its liberation from its aesthetic subordination. Inside the Tate Gallery’s first rooms, the visitor is surprised by The Roast Beef of England (1748), a painting long interpreted as an allegory of English nationalism, placed side by side Jean-Siméon Chardin’s Il tavolo di cucina (1743), for the rich sensuousness of the piece of meat and the knowing folds of the white napkin.

Thus, behind the uncertain and restless world of William Hogarth is the chromatic sophistication of the French artist. In several paintings, in particular the most merry or lovey ones, hover the grace and certain colors of the great Watteau, admired and well known in England thanks to the doctor he came to consult and the engravers who commuted between Paris and London. Aromas of robust realism from the Netherlands rest on Hogarth’s lively popular life. Hogarth was also susceptible to Marco Ricci’s and Pietro Longhi’s theatrical motives, who in turn left a mark on the banks of the Thames, in particular in the six editions of A Scene from the Beggar’s Opera (1728-1731). Despite his francophobic moods, Hogarth’s artistic language is polyglottal, as if to say that talent and vision rarely unfold within the close perimeter of local or national characters. Moreover, art forms have a vagrant disposition and are inclined to intertwine or collide with different expressions, in a continuous dialogue between identity and alterity.

A very original interpreter and translator of foreign artistic languages, Hogarth’s lively legacy has been travelling ‘on the continent’ for over two centuries. Much has been said and written about Hogarth’s key role in Francisco Goya’s work. Moreover, thanks to Hogarth’s well-known portrait of the actor David Garrick, a new idea of theater and acting made its way in nineteenth-century Italy. What a surprise to find Hogarth at the heart of the artistic debate of nineteenth-century Russia and in the domestic scenes of the painter Pavel Fedotov! Not to mention the fatal attraction felt by several German expressionists, from Max Beckmann to George Grosz. A free traveler in time and space, Hogarth can be encountered today in the work of the South-African artist William Kentridge or the Portuguese Paula Rego. A ubiquitous presence dedicated to the languages of art, alive only under the sign of exploration and trespassing in every sense of the word. 

Caroline Patey