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March 20, 2007

Christie Davies enjoys the erotic romps daringly portrayed by the artists of eighteenth century France and Hogarth's denunciations of them as unspeakable French filth: The Triumph of Eros at the Hermitage Rooms and Hogarth at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

The Triumph of Eros: Art and Seduction in 18th Century France
Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, London
24th November 2005 - 8th April 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)

Tate Britain, London
7th February - 29th April 2007
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

A trip to the Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain is best preceded by a visit to The Triumph of Eros at the Hermitage Rooms. There you will find the lewd pictures, the fêtes galantes of a fete worse than death, of such French eighteenth century artists as Boucher, Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Pierre Subleyras, whose techniques Hogarth often knew and learned from and the content of whose work he satirised and condemned. Both Hogarth and the French are titillating but Hogarth is moral. The French show us scenes of depravity from their land fit for Eros to live in with the message "come and join in". Hogarth depicts the same world of depravity but gives us the double satisfaction of prurience and disdain. Subleyras is Asian Babes; Hogarth is earlier vintage News of the World, all the prints that fit the news.

Britain and France are opposites, thesis and antithesis, yin and yang, acid and alkali, electron and positron. France is a kind of anti-Britain. If we want to remember who we are, we look at France and know that is what we are not. They feel the same about us.

What is wrong with that? We still love Aron and Durkheim, Rabelais and Proust, Descartes and Pascal, Lavoisier and Pasteur, Renoir and Cézanne, Jules et Jim and Les Chinois à Paris. The entire history of our two countries is one of political conflict and hostility between two equal neighbours and rivals. It lasts from the Hundred Years War, to the wars with Louis XIV, the struggles for dominance in North America, India, Africa, the Napoleonic Wars (which were only settled by Blücher and Bismarck), to the dirty Gallic deceptions of the entente cordial and the final betrayal by Vichy.

Now the locus of our struggle against nos ennemis éternaux is the EU where, once again, we, the free trading people of the sea, struggle against the hideous bureaucracies of France in Paris and Bruxelles. It has equally been a struggle between cultures, ways of life, ideas and ideals. It is about English liberty versus the French combination of absolutism and revolutionary excess, that great theme of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century English caricaturists. It is British respectability versus French licence, British earnestness versus French frivolity, the themes of Hogarth and later of the Lord's Day Observation Society, an antithesis reinforced as well as undermined by British tourists' visits to France in search of les maisons tolerées and cheap alcohol. It is dependable British empiricism versus the high Froggy nonsense that ran from Sartre to Levi-Strauss, Althusser and Lacan to the joyous idiocies of post-modernism. A French Anglophobe would agree with all of this but reverse the evaluations. French satirists have created Colonel Bramble and Major Thompson, the antitheses of Aristide Pujol or Renée Artois.

Hogarth only went once to France. He was shocked by what he called the

farcical pomp of war
in France and
a parade of religion and bustle with very little business.
It is the voice of mercantile, Protestant ethic, free and industrious England against the military and religious tyranny of France. Hogarth's descendants were to be Herbert Spencer and Mrs Thatcher, neither of them appreciated in France. Hogarth was so disgusted by Paris, where he had gone with a group of fellow artists in 1748, that he left early to come home via Calais. There he stopped to sketch the old British gate (Calais had been a British city until the reign of Mary Tudor) with our royal coat of arms and was arrested as a spy, much as you can be in Greece today.

On Hogarth's return he painted O Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais), 1748. We look through the frame of an archway at the great gate of Calais. In front of us a meagre hungry-faced French cook staggers under the weight of a huge red English steak, wrapped in a white cloth - the very centre of the painting and the best lit item. It has been imported from England for an inn catering to English visitors. A fat friar prods its solid fat with his finger in amazement and with longing. Starveling French soldiers leave their thin gruel to gawp at it unrequited. A tartan-trewed Jacobite in exile sits in a corner in despair with a typical French meal, a raw onion and a slab of stale bread. In the distance through the gate we can see a Roman Catholic religious procession. To the side is Hogarth himself, sketching, about to feel the hand of the French state on his collar. It is a portrait of a religious and military oppression that had in Hogarth's words rendered France a place of

poverty, slavery and insolence.
The French revolutionaries would have agreed with him, as no doubt they did when this very exhibition opened in Paris some months ago; after London the Hogarth exhibition goes next to Barcelona in Catalunya, where they will be cheering Hogarth in the streets.

The image of the roast beef of Old England, old England's roast beef, contrasted with a scrawny, skeletal Frenchman dining on raw onions and live snails was again used in revolutionary times by James Gillray in his ironic French Liberty, British Slavery, 1792. It survives in the ethnic nicknames les rosbifs used by the French about the English and, of course, Froggy. They have a flip-side for, from a French point of view, they refer to the supposed lack of sophistication in British cooking and the prestige of French cuisine, to the point where a menu in an expensive restaurant in England may well be in French. Political absolutism and an elaborate cuisine go together, for they are the product of the power and display of the King of France or, indeed, the Emperor of China in their banquets. It sets the sophisticated French and the Chinese apart from les Belges with their frites/frieten, the Krauts, Kolbasniks and Patatucchi, the Loksh, and Makaronas, the mămăligă; and, of course, the Scousers.

It is also the clue to Hogarth's other reason for loathing the French, his perception of them as a source of foreign, aristocratic luxury and licentiousness.

Hogarth's A Rakes Progress 1732 begins in Scene 2 with The Rake's Levee, a French custom of giving an audience to tradesmen and visitors on rising at the start of an idle day while still in housecoat and cap. Tom Rakewell, who has only just inherited his fortune, is already surrounded by spongers, including a French dancing master prancing on his toes, a tiny violin in his hand. It is the prelude to Tom's descent into orgies and gambling, debt, prison and madness.

It is perhaps significant that Hogarth uses a French phrase to title his moral tale of a cynical marriage, the Marriage á la mode, 1745, a fashionable and not enduring kind of marriage, between an heiress and a dissipated aristocrat Lord Squanderfield, already well-sticken with the French pox, syphilis. In the first scene, The Marriage Settlement, we see the heiress's alderman father reading the document of settlement, while Squanderfield sits to one side dressed in the very latest Parisian fashion, complete with the red-heeled shoes (the shoes themselves are black), les talons rouges of the higher French nobility who have been presented at court, useless men who never need to get their feet dirty. Not only his costume but the furnishings around him, observed in French paintings by Hogarth, reveal him as a man given over to the rottenness of French luxury goods, culture and lifestyle. He looks away from his intended bride into a rococo mirror; she is engrossed with a greasy lawyer who will later become her lover.

The marriage is doomed and the bride eventually dies from a suicidal overdose of opium, after reading that her lawyer-lover had been hanged at Tyburn for the murder of her husband. How good it is to live in the age of Sir Ken Macdonald and Lord Goldsmith, when lawyers are no longer associated with adultery, and capital punishment has been abolished. Today the homicidal lawyer would soon be released to relieve prison over-crowding and she would receive counselling.

In Hogarth's end-game, The Lady's Death 1743-5, The Suicide of the Countess the maid holds her pox-ridden child to the corpse for a last embrace, while her thoughtful father removes her valuable wedding ring with care; for him the gold is in the bag. The intent look on his face, the skill with which he holds her wrist in his left hand while drawing the ring off with forefinger and thumb, the contrast between his long, smooth, red, almost scarlet, coat and his dead daughter's crumpled clothes, are all evidence of what a master of detail Hogarth was.

Behind these English moral tales of Hogarth lie the immoral tales of seduction of the French Age of Rococo, 1715-75, the libertine times of the Regency and Louis XIV on display at the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House. They range from the coy innuendo of Jean-Honoré Fragonard to the directly erotic and obscene works of Pierre Subleyras, otherwise best known for his religious scenes, and the libertine scenes of Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, condemned by the Archbishop of Paris for their immorality and by Diderot because the artist pandered to the corrupt tastes of his patrons. The more licentious works could not be exhibited in public and might even be hidden behind a curtain.

Some prints existed in differing versions, ranging from mere narrative to obvious pornography, as a tale from classical antiquity unveiled and disrobed for private consumption had drapery added on so that it could be sold more openly. Gérard Vidal's Jupiter and Anthiope 1770s, after the drawing by Charles Monnet appeared in two versions with Anthiope's vital bijou, first revealed and then hidden. France had become the world's pornographer, a position it was to hold until well into the twentieth century. The artists in this exhibition are the ancestors of the men, who even in the early 1950s, would come up to innocent British tourists in Paris to extort from them their meagre supply of francs permitted by exchange controls in exchange for "feelzy postcards m'sieur - genuine French". They were inevitably confiscated by the Customs at Dover/Douvres and, in theory, destroyed.

Jacques Bouilliard's Le Comparaison (The Comparison), 1760s after the painting by Jean Fréderic Schall, would have made an excellent card of this kind. Two well reared girls in a handsome garden strip off and pose naked, as motionless as a Windmill Theatre tableau, next to a statue of Aphrodite Kallipygos, Aphrodite without her nightie, emulating the beauty of her bottom. This could all be white marble, such is their triple callipygian perfection. Then a third girl, a naughty nymph, une fée d'eau, bathing in the pool below the statue leans up and tickles the left nether cheek of the girl on the right, causing her to twitch. Three ladies in hats, picnicking on the bank beneath the summer trees with fruit, wine and little dog, look on with gestures of delight. We are all encouraged to be bottom fetishist voyeurs and pastoral peeping toms, as the girls cavort in the sun. It is said to be a ritual erotic ceremony of the Janettes, as the girls were known, a prelude to the unspeakable orgies of the Société des Aphrodites in their bosky domain at Montmorency. It is a pastoral Pompei.

A favourite device to enliven these woodland romps was a swing hanging from a branch as in Nicholas Lancret's La balançoire, 1730s or Gérard Vidal's, after Nicholas Levreince, La balançoire mystérieuse, The Secret Swing, 1780s. On the swing women can fly in ecstasy, while a man exerts himself in push and pull.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Swing, 1767 in which a woman, swinging high and leaning back, opens her legs to her lover in the bushes, who sprawls back entranced against an antique statue of menacing Cupid, while pointing with his raised left arm to the pulsating pudenda, her inviting bijou residence, above. The vital spot is placed at the centre of an oblique line connecting their gaze. She, together with a passing bird, flies in the bright sunlight that comes plunging through a gap in the trees. Behind her, in the darkness of the wood, stands an innocent curate who works the swing with a rope, unconscious of the fashionably dressed lover in the bush. Cupid is there to absolve the pair of all moral responsibility for the troubles that are to follow.

No one in France has free will. Cupid's arrows are to blame. Everyone is driven by a passion that can not, must not, be resisted. It is no wonder that Cupid, in his sentimental child nakedness, is such a favourite theme in the exhibition. Sometimes, to pander to and cater for the notorious French taste for flagellation, he is placed over the knee of a naked Venus to have his chubby buttocks thrashed with a bunch of thorned roses, as in François-Bernard Lépicié's (after Jean-Marc Nattier) Nul amor sans peine. Nul Rose fans Epine, no love without pain, no rose without thorns, or Jacques Bouilliard's (after Louis Lagrenée) Punition de l'amour, The punishment of Cupid, 1783.

It is a sado-masochist's dream , as is Pierre Maloeuvre's (after Pierre-Antoine Baudouin's $28,000 original) Le Curieux, Peeping Tom, 1779. The peeping tom peers round the curtain of a lady's bedroom as she lies buttocks towards us, with all exposed, awaiting penetration by an enormous clyster held by her advancing maid. Enemas containing coffee or tobacco as a stimulant were much to the taste of these upper class ladies preparing for a late night party and the scene of the hidden voyeur watching them being administered was a favourite of French graphic artists.

The most outrageous illustration of the French devotion to the cult of O quel cul tu as (Oh Calcutta) is, though, Pierre Subleyras' La Jument de compère Pierre, The Mare of Peasant Pierre, based on an obscenely amusing fable by Jean de La Fontaine (born Moishe Spritzwasser). Father Jean the priest, who fancies the beautiful wife of a poor peasant, promises the peasant that he will turn his wife into a great mare, to help him in the fields as he ploughs and sows, but that he can only work this magic if she is undressed and there is complete silence. The wife bends over a couch and raises her shift to reveal well shaped legs and inviting thighs and a rosy, sassy bottom. We see her from behind and from the side, as she turns her head and looks at us with a knowing directness. The lecherous priest in black robe and white ruff leans forward towards her, one hand on where the mare's tail will be, the other thrust through his pocket doing unmentionable things. The sunburnt peasant standing behind them suddenly works out what is going on, and speaks, breaking the priest's spell which requires silence and thus losing all chance of having a mare to ride.

Once again we are the voyeurs looking up the nakedness of the cozening croucher, while she in turn looks back invitingly at us. An Australian looking at the scene would exclaim "I'll be up there like a rat up a pump". It is a very French group, complete with corrupt priest, wanton wife, cuckolded husband and a peasant who values his useful working animals more than his alluring spouse. A real green mare's nest.

Subleyras was best known for his religious works but then even this work is a tribute to the devotions of the clergy. It is also striking how the religious ecstasy on the faces of female saints, in earlier religious pictures and sculptures such as Bernini's St Teresa is now easily transformed by François Hubert in La Nouvelle Héloise (after François Lefevre), 1765 and in Honi soit qui mal y pense (after Jacques-Phillipe Carème) into the erotic ecstasy of young French girls reading dirty books. Rousseau the author of La Nouvelle Héloise and the great French flagellant of the Con-fessée-ons, described them as t

hose dangerous books that can only be read with one hand
and indeed the honey girl in Honi Soit turns the pages of the French translation of Ovid's Ars Amatoria with one hand, while her other toying paw is tucked beneath her skirts producing a facial expression that reads erotic.

There are, of course, also romps and frolics, seductions and deception of the kind that we now, thanks to Georges-Léon-Jules-Marie Feydeau the illegitimate son of Napoleon III, refer to as French farce. Lovers arrive through windows, hide in wardrobes and closets and rampage through boudoirs. All good dirty fun.

It is this world that Hogarth, a keen student of French art, satirises and opposes. The seduction scenes become Hogarth's Before and After series 1730-1, 1731, 1736 where gallantry in the woods and "date rape" in my lady's bedchamber are followed by alienation and disillusionment with all Hogarth's wealth of symbolic detail. There is even a reference to the imported French taste for flagellation, le vice français, plate 3 of Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress where harlot Moll Hackabout is being raided by the vice squad, in the form of Justice John Gonson, attended by several stalwart bailiffs with staves. Moll sits on the edge of a disordered four posted bed, one breast exposed. Behind her on the wall hang a birch rod and a witch's hat, ready for clients devoted to Rousseau's magic.

In contrast to these French scenes, Hogarth painted portraits of English worthies such as Benjamin Hoadly, Bishop of Winchester, 1741, Captain Thomas Coram, 1740, philanthropist and founder of Coram's Hospital, George Arnold, a vigorous merchant and again philanthropist. They are the very picture of the English virtues, benevolence, directness, energy, integrity. Here too are Hogarth's model English families in modest conversation as with, The Western Family, 1738, and The Strode Family, 1738.

Yet in the background there is a threatening early version of Tony Blair's England, in which the government permits and encourages drinking to excess and reckless gambling and does nothing to curb and expel evil foreign influences. Who can fail to recognise in our own times Hogarth's The Lottery, 1724, The Denunciation (a false accusation of paternity), 1729, or Gin Lane, 1751. Today after a long interval of sobriety we are back to the squalid public drunkenness of the eighteenth century and for the same reason, strong cheap booze and an abandonment of all controls over its sale, this time as a result of pressure from the French dominated E.U. for harmonisation. They enforce the harmony, we reap the disharmony. It is back to Hogarth again.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, another Hogarthian tale of progress.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on the Hogarth exhibition, see: Lilian Pizzichini does battle with the crowds at Tate Britain's Hogarth exhibition.

To read David Wootton's take on the Hogarth exhibition, see: We find Hogarth a much more disturbing artist than his contemporaries did - David Wootton explains why.

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