Interview with Helen Stalker, Curator of Hockney to Hogarth, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

Hockney to Hogarth, running from 6 October until 3 February 2013, brings together the works of 18th century artist William Hogarth, and contemporary artist David Hockney, who both completed a series of works entitled A Rake’s Progress, with Hockney being inspired by Hogarth’s earlier sequence. It also features musical performances from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and a series of specially-commissioned poems. Aesthetica talks to the curator of the exhibition, Helen Stalker, in anticipation of its opening in a week’s time.

A: This exhibition is special, in that it requires the viewer not just to think across different artists, but also across centuries and mediums. Do you think that the common title of the works, A Rake’s Progress, is essentially a unifying factor, or does it open up more disparities than it reconciles between the artists and their experiences?
HS: Hockney himself didn’t actually emulate Hogarth’s series scene by scene but he found some connection with this eighteenth century tale of youth and the city. When he visited New York for the first time as a young, gay, northern art student, he completely immersed himself in the place – he didn’t just take the tourist route, but experienced areas such as the Bowery and Harlem where he saw high levels of crime, prostitution, alcoholism – these scenes reminded him of Hogarth’s engravings and that’s where he made the connection.

There are some definite differences between Hockney’s experiences and the fictional character of Tom Rakewell, for example; Tom and the London he was living in was ragingly heterosexual, whereas Hockney was beginning to openly embrace his homosexuality, Tom inherited a fortune from his miserly, loveless father whereas Hockney experienced a working class and wholly supportive upbringing. Hockney occasionally draws on these disparities and parodies Tom’s experiences to great effect. Themes such as morality, lost innocence, corruption, sex, alcohol, debt, nationalism and class unify both series and creates a wonderful dialogue between 1735 London and 1961 New York. In fact, displaying them in this current climate also invokes a contemporary relevance to both works.

A: In the light of the current economic climate and the dramatic rise in unemployment figures, do you see A Rake’s Progress as a particularly timely exhibition?
HS: The wonderful thing about both versions is that they express their moment of creation so effectively. Hockney’s series embodies (albeit subtly) the phenomena of America in 1961: Kennedy, nuclear paranoia, espionage, the civil rights movement, pop music, aggressive advertising. Hogarth also condenses all that was 1735 London into his prints and invokes them with heavy political, cultural and social meaning. What is astonishing, therefore, is the contemporary relevance that emerges from these works. I’d agree that they’re particularly apt for the current economic climate – I’d also say they would equally demonstrate the same relevance in other decades – the yuppy phenomena in the 1980s for example, where social morality seemed overshadowed by the quest for monetary gain.

What I find particularly poignant about exhibiting the works now, however, is how they reflect the consequences of living beyond our financial means. Both rakes hit a peak in their tales, where they find themselves relatively well off and blindly spend money on the meaningless aspects of life. As a result they live well beyond their financial capabilities and fail to prepare for the long term (in Hockney’s case the duration of his stay in New York). The consequences of this are most horrific in Hogarth’s version where Tom finds himself in a hell of destitution and complete mental breakdown. Both rakes are victims of social pressure, aggressive consumerism and the influence of the media on determining how one should look and live. Hogarth’s rake, in particular, rejects any attempt at intellectual, moral and spiritual sustenance and opts for an empty existence of gambling, alcoholism, image and promiscuity. By the final print, he is damaged and mindless. There is a definite resonance with current fears about how the individual, and society as a whole might ‘progress’ through this period of financial and political unrest.

A: How has the exhibition been curated to promote a conversation between the artists featured?
HS: I’m really relying on the visitor to make their own connections between the two sets of prints. I’d rather the imagery speak for itself rather than me pointing out every significance. Having said that, I am giving some context and information in the labels which should enrich both Hockney and Hogarth’s tales. Both series are displayed slightly differently also to evoke a sense of the time they were produced; Hockney’s prints are hung in a single, long line across the wall so they can be read in a way that might be similar to a comic strip whereas Hogarth’s are arranged to mirror the order that the original painted versions were hung in the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Although Hogarth’s version is a highly significant aspect, Hockney’s tale is the dominant presence in the exhibition. As well as displaying the Rake’s Progress series, five early paintings by Hockney produced whilst still a student at the Royal College of Art and several very early drawings from his adolescence in Bradford are also exhibited. There are also paintings from the Whitworth’s own collection by Hockney’s fellow students and associates from this period, such as R.B. Kitaj, Patrick Procktor and Derek Boshier. The aim of the exhibition is to explore Hockney’s early life and practice as well as what it meant to be a young, gay, northern art student exploring both London and New York in the early 1960s.

A: The exhibition also, on select dates, will feature performances from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and from poet Kei Miller’s newly-commissioned work in response to Hockney to Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress. Why do you think the theme of A Rake’s Progress appeals to so many artists across so many art forms?
HS: We’ve already discussed the universal themes around morality and society but I think the tale of A Rake’s Progress is also one of a young man forging his path through the pitfalls and high points of urban life. This is a vehicle that is and has been used to huge effect throughout so many art forms: John Schlesinger’s take on Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy springs to mind as does Dickens, Hemingway, Hardy, Joyce etc.

I’m really looking forward to hearing Kei Miller’s new work which he’ll be reciting in the gallery. He seemed really animated by the prints when he visited the gallery and, surprisingly, it seemed to be Hogarth’s version, in particular, which resonated with him. It will also be great to hear the opera being sung amongst the works. Stravinsky’s opera creates a really interesting link between Hockney and Hogarth, as Hockney (an opera lover) designed the sets for the Glyndebourne production of the opera in 1975. He based the sets on Hogarth’s prints, embellishing and enlarging the cross-hatching technique used to produce the etchings.

A: What would you like people to take away from this exhibition?
HS: I’m hoping that the humour, satire, despair and debauchery within the works on display will prove a rich and enticing mix for people coming to see the exhibition. I’m also hoping that visitors will get a sense of the power of print, the techniques involved and the importance of the medium across eras.

After the vast and intoxicating Royal Academy exhibition earlier this year, I also hope people get a different take on Hockney; as a young man, finding his way both artistically and personally. This is a pared down version of the artist, a ‘back to basics’ Hockney where, even as an art student, his skill, prolific creative drive and unique personality is evident. He’s vulnerable here though, unsure of his place and the direction his artwork is taking (despite his early critical and commercial success). It’s a great chance to see the beginning of his ‘progress’ in a year which has seen such a huge celebration of his on-going achievements.

Hockney to Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, 6 October until 4 November, Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER.

Seán Hewitt

1. David Hockney, A Rake’s Progress, The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester courtesy of David Hockney.
2. William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress, The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester.