Progress, The Foundling Museum, London – review

The powerfully distinctive strain of British art that is realist, anecdotal, comic, socially aware and humane begins with William Hogarth, continues through the 19th-century narrative tradition, and thrives among contemporaries including David Hockney, Grayson Perry and Yinka Shonibare. Marking the Foundling Museum’s 10th birthday and the 250th anniversary of Hogarth’s death (Hogarth was a committed governor of the Foundling Hospital) this show presents the artist’s eternally lively moral tale “The Rake’s Progress” (1735), alongside 20th- and 21st-century responses.

Hockney’s semi-autobiographical “The Rake’s Progress” (1961-62) shares Hogarth’s graphic brilliance, wit, attention to detail, intense evocation of youth and the city, and exploration of freedom and corruption. Paralleling Tom Rakewell’s descent into debt and debauchery in Georgian London, Hockney charts the adventures of a young provincial gay artist in New York in an etching series produced in direct response to his first visit to America.

Shonibare’s intricately-described “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998) transplants the tale to the heyday of the British empire, has a black protagonist, and turns on concepts of identity and culture; this Rake encounters wealth, lust, the relationship between luxury goods and slavery, on his 24-hour trip through London. Perry’s Tom Rakewell is also mired in history – that of the British class system as described in the lavish, satirical tapestry “The Vanity of Small Differences” (2012). Perry surrounds his hero with taste-signifying objects representing the obsessions and hypocrisies of each class as explored in his Channel 4 series, All in the Best Possible Taste.

The Foundling Museum has also commissioned a response from an emerging artist, Jessie Brennan. She adds a modernist twist to the ironic treatments of progress: her pencil drawings visualise the “progress” of the imminent demise (scheduled for 2015) of Robin Hood Gardens, a social housing project designed by Peter and Alison Smithson in a 1960s Utopian ideal that has failed, Brennan says, within the current “ideological system of growth driven by capital and profit”. As Shonibare notes, Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress” “should adorn the walls of every bank in the country as a precautionary tale”.

From Friday June 6 until September 7,

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