a show at paroxysms of embarrassment on its own subject

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Opposite is a debonair terracotta bust of Hogarth by another French artist, sculptor Louis François Roubiliac. Even Hogarth’s famous self-portrait with his pug, often hailed as an unadorned and indomitable icon of English, appears alongside a similar compositional resemblance of his own reflection by Dutch painter Cornelis Troost.

In short, the walls of Tate Britain are filled with paintings by Continental artists whose innovations set a precedent or offer a stark parallel to Hogarth’s own developments.

But while the show ingeniously weaves bonds between diverse performers, it sidesteps the disturbing truth that their temperaments are often clearly different. Chardin, for example, is all quiet, subtlety and restraint. Yet the first image we see, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1749-1750), reminds us that Hogarth was happiest when portraying a hoarse, pilfering, drunken crowd.

The biggest problem, however, is tone. There is little affection for his subject within this exhibition, which is even more censored than Rodin’s current exhibition at Tate Modern: where once we laughed at Hogarth, now we are asked to rebuke him. Most of us would recognize that we live in an era of convulsive and necessary correction. Yet how useful is it to constantly castigate the past? It’s easy to feel morally superior when condemning our ancestors, but does self-flagellation today really redeem historical depravity?

Ultimately, someone smart will have to find another way to deal with our imperfect collective history, because watching institutions like Tate in paroxysms of embarrassment about the art they have chosen to show is to more and more off-putting.

From November 3 to March 20. Details: tate.org.uk


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