I am inside the Soane Museum in London. It used to be a private residence and museum for one of Britain’s most important architects, Sir John Soane. From Piranesi’s Rome to Victorian paintings, works of art are all clustered together and a claustrophobic me moves among the antique-strewn rooms. Here to investigate William Hogarth’s original six painting entitled Rake’s Progress, my eyes scour the walls in search of the works. But I see nothing. I ask one of the wardens in the Picture Room – where are the paintings? “Ah! I will show you in a minute,” she replies. To my surprise, a wall covered with paintings opens up like a window to reveal another layered wall, hung with pictures.
This series of paintings by Hogarth depict the decline and fall of a rich young man called Tom Rakewell.. He abandons the woman he promised to marry, surrounds himself with every temptation and ends up in Bedlam, at the time a notorious mental hospital. Having seen the opera Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky, of which its inspiration from very same paintings, I came to the Museum to compare the different interpretations of William Hogarth, Igor Stravinsky and David Hockney..
I look more closely at each work and finally understand some of the mysterious scenes I could not quite grasp of. The scene of Tom in the Bedlam has many characters wearing masks and funny hats: A masked man wearing a crown, a man with a pointed hat, someone with a musical score on his head etc. After seeing the painting, the iconography made sense. A man wearing a crown thinks he is king and the guy with music scores on his head is the musician playing one stringed fiddle. Hockney then added small boxes to case each lunatic, suggesting lonely cells of the Bedlam. London high society was very aware of the moral lessons on display. As with his first series –Harlot’s Progress(1731) – Rake’s Progress (1735) was a big hit.
Fast forward two hundred years: the paintings were exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute and were seen by Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971). The year was 1947 and he envisioned Hogarth’s series could be turned into an opera. Stravinsky commissioned the libretto to W.H. Auden whom collaborated with Chester Kallman. It took five years for Stravinsky to stage it as a full opera premiered in Venice. This involvement in the world of opera was not new for Stravinsky. He met Diaghilev for the first time in 1909 and a life -long collaboration began right then. The well known Firebird, followed by Petrshka (1911), were both commissioned by Diaghilev. With turbulent times and revolution sweeping through his native Russia, his stay in Western Europe became prolonged.
Fast forward again. Another noteworthy collaboration was sparked when Glyndebourne Festival director John Cox asked artist David Hockney to design a set for Rake’s Progress. John not only knew Hockney had earlier produced a series of work inspired by the same story but also wanted something unconventional. His decision lead to a timeless production that has prevailed; the opera has been revived seven times,, most recently performed in 2010.
To convey Hogarth’s ideas as comprehensively as possible, Hockney studied both engravings and paintings but also looked beyond Hogarth’s work as a whole. One would find some of exotic animals like crocodiles of the auction scenes, were introduced by the opera version and Hockney would use some of the Hogarth’s examples. Hockney also borrowed Hogarth’s crosshatching technique and applied as a pattern from table cloths to costumes. To heighten the effect Hockney visited Glyndebourne to make sure the dimensions of the crosshatching were correct. It holds every scene together, and was deliberately left monochrome or few colours used in the original printing process were only appeared. Even these changed in keeping with to Tom’s debauched journey: his London flat, for instance, loses colour as he falls prey to ever greater temptation.
Hockney says he decided to keep the engraving techniques for the production because they are linear and spiky and matches with the music. The schematic quality of Hockney’s designs, their humour and dryness, melds with both the music and libretto, mediating between the 18th and 20th centuries. It is a truly creative approach and differs dramatically from his later work for The Magic Flute, an opera set in sublime scenery that recalls Romanticist painters such as Turner.
So how do the artists differ? Some observations: Hogarth’s paintings are soft and colourful, more like a melo-drama. His engravings have far more precision and more ridged because of the particular printing technique. Hogarth is able to capture the richness and noise of the scene in both versions. The noise and debauchery progress in a very theatrical manner. One can also hear musical scores as in one of the scenes, his music teacher is playing Handel; the dancing master is trying to teach him a gentleman’s dance with a violin.. All one hears is music, noise and chaos. Hockney’s translation to 3d visual is a harmonized gesemkunstwerk (total work of art). His intent was to have the stage as a backdrop, rather than a detailed environment that would interfere with the characters. The Rake’s Progress distinguishes itself as something very unusual with its inspiration starting from visual resources, involvement of the three most avant-garde artists of the day.
김승민 큐레이터 글
(by Stephanie Seungmin Kim)