A whole lot, and not very much at all, changed in the almost two and a half centuries between 1732 and 1975. You can see the evidence in David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress, a small and pleasing exhibition in the lower-level prints & drawings galleries of the Portland Art Museum.
The exhibition, which runs through August 2 and is timed to coincide with Portland Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress opening Thursday evening at Keller Auditorium, is three-pronged, consisting of a full set of William Hogarth’s eight 18th century engravings of the cautionary tale, all from the museum’s own collections, and a complete set of Hockney’s 16 etchings on the same subject from 1961-63, plus set and costume models and sketches for Glyndebourne Opera Festival’s celebrated 1975 production that introduced Hockney’s designs. Both sets are on loan from the David Hockney Foundation in Los Angeles.
The result is a brisk and entertaining mini-course in art history, and a welcome reminder that when theater and the visual arts decide to play together, good things often happen. It’s also the latest in a series of smartly conceived small exhibits overseen in recent years by the museum’s graphic arts curator, Mary Weaver Chapin, including This Is War!, Feast and Famine, and In the Studio: Reflections on Artistic Life, all three drawn mainly from the museum’s own notable collection of prints and drawings. A Rake’s Progress is simpler and more narrowly focused than those shows, but its simplicity is also part of its elegance.
It’s a surprise to realize that Portland Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress is the first in the company’s half-century of existence. The long delay is a bit of a head-scratcher considering that the work is a notable achievement in the world of post-Puccini opera, with superb bloodlines: music by Igor Stravinsky, libretto by the poet W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, with a premiere production in Vienna in 1951 that starred the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Anne Trulove and Robert Rounseville as Tom Rakewell, the dissolute young rake of the title.
But if Portland Opera’s late out of the gate, it seems to be making up for it, both by using Hockney’s retro-modernist sets and costumes and by breaking out of the silo to collaborate with the art museum. Collaboration’s becoming the name of the game among Portland arts organizations, and it’s a welcome trend.
Hogarth’s original eight paintings, created in 1732 and ’33, hang in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. But the world knows the series best through the black & white engravings completed in 1735, and the museum’s set (these ones struck ca. 1760) represent Hogarth’s moralistic telling of the tale, in which a ne’er-do-well inherits a modest fortune, fritters it away on loose women, strong drink, and gambling dens, and ends his days in an insane asylum.
The Hogarth prints are notable not just for their potent cocktail of sex, sin, and moralizing, but also for their visual detail. Perspectives are mathematically correct – you can count on visual veracity to go with your scandalizing – and the scenes are almost overwhelmingly busy, stuffed with detail, as if a richly observed picaresque novel were unfolding on the sheets of paper. Plate 3, for instance, The Tavern Scene, almost shouts with activity: more than a dozen people in various degrees of sin and sloth, an excess of drapery and clothing (some on, some off), a claustrophobic upholstering of props and incident. The prints were made for intimate, personal enjoyment, like reading a book, and Hogarth rewarded his customers with complex scenes they could visit and revisit in detail. This particular scene takes place in the Rose Tavern, a notorious brothel in Covent Garden, where a drunken Tom is falling deep into dissolution.
Hockney’s version, in contrast, is loose and gangly, an elegant sketch of a story with a sophisticated-cartoon feel and a mastery of the limited line. It suggests far more than it tells, and it blithely ignores the classical rules of perspective: things float, and it doesn’t really matter. His telling of the tale is inspired by Hogarth’s but based loosely on his own experiences as a young artist arriving in New York from his native England in 1961. As Chapin puts it in her exhibition notes, he “plays the role of the protagonist, as a young gay man navigating the wonders and snares of New York for the first time.” Hockney was still in his mid-20s, and the series makes clear that he already was becoming a major force, a thorough modernist both stylistically and psychologically, but also an artist with a deep understanding of the art that came before his time. Cast Aside, in which a deftly sketched hand tosses an expression-less bust of our hero into a serpent’s mouth, and The Drinking Scene, in which one fellow holds another in a neck-choke as they belly up to a bar, have the sophisticated minimalism of a Saul Steinberg cartoon in The New Yorker, but with a more furtive twist: they arrive with a tiny tug of dread. In the latter 20th century, Hockney didn’t need to make his depictions of moral decay literal, the way Hogarth had. Suggestion was enough.
For both Hogarth and Hockney, I suspect, the idea of telling the shocking tale was more alluring than the moral appended to it, and I imagine the immersion in the sinning that led to the suffering had its appeal. Hockney also had a genuine affection for retelling or reinterpreting old stories in much more intimate forms than the color-saturated paintings of swimming pools and other contemporary scenes for which he’s best known. In 2012 the Maryhill Museum of Art showed a similar historically grounded series, David Hockney: Six Fairy Tales, containing 39 original etchings for a 1970 book of a half-dozen Grimm tales, including such lesser-known stories as Old Rinkrank and The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear.
The 25 theater sketches, which include full, three-dimensional scenic designs as well as costume sketches for Tom, Trulove, the mysterious Nick Shadow and others, are small delights of quick invention that document a full-blown, confident visual style for the production of the opera. They can be enjoyed as simple sketches from a master hand, or as blueprints for a fully fleshed production in which the look is as important as the sound.
In designing for Stravinsky’s opera, Hockney joined a long line of talented artists who have enjoyed the stimulus of designing for the theater, often to stunning result. Isamu Noguchi designed Appalachian Spring brilliantly for Martha Graham; Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes hired an all-star lineup of painters to design his sets, including Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Braque, di Chirico, Utrillo, Roualt and Léon Bakst (as well as composers including Stravinsky, Poulenc, Milhaud, Debussy and Satie). More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge created fantastical comic sets and costumes for Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. And in Portland, the distinguished painter Henk Pander has a long history of designing sets, from the old Storefront Theatre to the Jewish Theatre Collaborative. In a way, it’s natural: artists feeding off of artists, creating more than the sum of their parts. The good news is, Hockney wasn’t alone.