Yale Daily News. Published Friday, February 7, 1997

Art Review BAC exhibit explores England's darker side


Using John Gay's 1728 theatrical production of "The Beggar's Opera" as a stepping stone into the iniquitous dens of harlots and highwaymen, "Among the Whores and Thieves," which opened at the British Art Center Saturday, suggests a concordance with themes expressed in recent film culture.

In the trend of "Pulp Fiction," "The Usual Suspects," and "Trainspotting," the show proves that the present fascination with lawlessness is not a phenomenon restricted to the 20th century.

"The Beggar's Opera" first played the English stage at the Theatre Royal at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1728. Rather than employ the florid arias and heroic drama popular on the Continent, Gay put common English tunes into the mouths of rogues. The production became immensely popular and spurred engravings of its scenes into wide circulation.

Fake biographies of Macheath, the hero of the piece, attest to the production's pervasive influence. The names Lucy Lockit and Polly Peacham, the two wives of Macheath, became familiar not only because of the popularity of Gay's work, but also because their suggestive playfulness appealed to the spirit of times.

William Hogarth, painter and satirist, concerned his work with the social mobility of the age. The exhibition at the British Art Center displays oil paintings and several of the engravings he produced in relation to this theme, along with contemporary copies and engravings by other 18th century artists which address the same issue. The commentary which accompanies the works explain their connection to the events of "The Beggar's Opera."

Two engravings done by Hogarth are part of a series titled "A Harlot's Progress." These engravings, from 1732, illustrate moments of a whore's daily life, showing how the clever harlot earns her living by taking advantage of her wealthy -- though obtuse -- john. These scenes elaborate a theme for which Hogarth was famous. He produced an immensely popular series of eight engravings called "The Rake's Progress." The series relates the story of a poor, simple man who inherits a large sum of money. He foolishly spends it and gets himself in trouble with the law, ending his life on the gallows.

The viewer is moved from scorn to laughter to pity for the rake. Many of Hogarth's works capture this conflict of disdain and fascination which the more prosperous classes of the time felt for the underground life.

The three main works of the show are variations on an oil Hogarth painted in 1729, which depicts a scene from Act III of "The Beggar's Opera." Macheath stands between his two wives as they both implore their fathers to spare his life. The women pose in theatric gestures derived from a1712 German handbook for actors, effectively conveying their honest grief.

The viewer is moved to sympathize with Macheath -- who awaits judgment in chains -- by the ardor expressed by his wives. But the man himself wears a bored, insensitive look which deflects sympathy.

The emotional pull of the painting oscillates in the same way as in "The Rake's Progress." Hogarth shows the ambivalence of emotion through a formal connection between the white veil of the wife on the left, the white stripe of Macheath's hat, the white dress of the wife on the right, and the white line rimming her father's hat. The visual line moves up and down, mimicking the wavering sympathy of the viewer.

Hogarth frames the scene with painted stage curtains, though his use of light and perspective create an environment which seems to be real. The observer is pulled into the depth of space by the intriguing drama, but the drapery emphasizes the separation between the affluent audience and the whores and thieves of the stage.

Included in the exhibition are two engravings by the artist/poet William Blake which translate into line drawing Hogarth's painting of "The Beggar's Opera." Blake's delicate lines build anticipation for a show of his "The Human Form Divine," opening April 2 at the British Art Center.

Adjacent to the Hogarth exhibition on the second floor of the gallery is a show of prints by the famous British artist David Hockney, who created a version of "The Rake's Progress" between 1961 and 1963. Hockney pictorially describes his impressions of New York City on his first visit from London in 16 striking black etchings, dramatized by red aquatint forms.

The Hockney show contemporizes the 18th century work near which it is displayed. The juxtaposition of such disparate moods in artwork creates a surprising complement for both.

A series of films relating to "The Beggar's Opera," which the museum offers on Saturdays though May 10, encourages further interpretation of the Hogarth exhibition as a modern event which relates to contemporary issues.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lecture series and will be on display through April 6.