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Sex and the city. Urban grit. Dirty jokes. Toppling chamber pots and colossal turds. Syphilis and Aids. The engraving “Gin Street” and the video performance “Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk”. The overlap in sensibility between Tate’s two spring shows, Hogarth, which opened this week at Tate Britain, and Gilbert and George, launching next week at Tate Modern, is palpable. Across three centuries, here are the lines of descent – satirical, narrative, irreverent, moralising – that form the tradition of British art.

Hogarth is a vivid, energetic and enormously enjoyable show. From engravings such as “The Harlot’s Progress” and “Gin Street”, which more than any other visual images form our idea of 18th-century London life, to painted portraits and conversation pieces whose delicacy and drama assert a refined, unusual and versatile talent, here is the most comprehensive exhibition in living memory devoted to one of art’s great innovators.

Before William Hogarth, no one dreamt of a cross-over between commercial and high art; this off-beat, independent British artist, who lavished painterly skill on engravings affordable by a wide audience, ended the aristocratic stranglehold on taste and opened the door to the use of popular imagery, and its mass dissemination, that would reach iconic proportions in the 20th century with Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Gilbert and George.

Nothing disguises Hogarth’s own individuality. Of the self-portraits greeting us on arrival, the first, in wig and conventional attire, is painted with the lively, assured, rushed brushstrokes characteristic of his best portraits, which catch entrepreneurial subjects such as his friend “Captain Thomas Coram” breathless, engaged in thought, about to jump into action. The second, “The Painter and his Pug”, is almost flamboyantly plain, comically playing up the resemblance between the pugnacious, stocky artist and his broad-faced, wrinkled, determined-looking dog. The pair of works might hint at two sides to a temperament – earthy realist, painterly painter – but easy, unostentatious manner, honesty and questing intelligence are the governing impressions of both.

Natural fluency, straight-forward powerful style and a journalistic love of realistic detail combined with imaginative empathy. Hogarth, born in 1697, had no peers among British painters in the early 18th century, but much in common with the writers – Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – then shaping the first English novels. Like them, he pioneered the depiction of everyday life and did so in the piquant, picaresque form of the series, whose rich human anecdotes and allusions demand close reading. Moll Hackabout, the country girl exploited to die as a syphilitic whore in his first series “The Harlot’s Progress”, for example, is cousin to Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and her narrative is embroidered with similar ribald elegance – the vicar at her funeral suggestively spilling his drink as he touches up a mourning prostitute who proffers an erect yew sprig; the dopey undertaker sheathing the outstretched arm of another diseased whore with a glove while she picks his pocket.

Comedy, pathos and rage mingle in this tale of exploitation of the ignorant poor by the educated rich. As Hogarth – son of a schoolmaster who ended in a debtor’s prison when an idealistic venture to establish a Latin-speaking coffee house failed – became more successful, his targets rose up the social scale too, but sympathy still balances satire. In “The Rake”, when naive Tom squanders his fortune and dies in Bedlam mental hospital, his corpse is stretched out in a loincloth as in a Pietà: a secular martyr to vain materialism.

In “Marriage à la Mode”, the cast list is wealthier and the ironic pleasure comes from the gulf between the gorgeous, glossy surface textures, the gilt interiors with their Old Masters and French pretensions to the ritual of la toilette, and the sordid tale of adultery, murder and suicide. The narrative impetus is as strong, but caricature evolves into spectacle. Lining up in the final scene, each character exaggerates his part: expiring wife; distraught nurse; doctor upbraiding a monkey-faced servant who has provided the suicide’s pills; hardened father slipping off his daughter’s wedding ring – to sell – in a coda matched, at the table, by a skeletal dog devouring the family meal.

“My picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures, are to exhibit a dumb show,” Hogarth wrote at the end of his life.

This exhibition illuminates beautifully, poignantly, how Hogarth’s conversation pieces – group portraits commissioned by affluent heirs – are modulations, in a different key, on his overarching theme of life as theatre. Too often these aristocratic portraits are compared with those by Gainsborough and Reynolds, both Hogarth’s pupils, but they were more than 30 years younger. The true parallel is with Watteau’s fêtes galantes, whose delicate choreography, brilliant tonal highlights, dabbing, fractured brushwork and sense of fleeting moments frozen in time are all shared by Hogarth’s decorative tableaux in pastoral settings such as “The Hervey Conversation Piece” or “The Jones Family”.

Several have remained in private collections and are a revelation here of the limpid grace of his full-blown painting style. “A Performance of ‘The Indian Emperor’” catches the fragile equilibrium between age and youth, art and life, as the viewer is positioned as part of the audience watching a children’s eager, earnest theatrical production. The play of light against dark in the opulent library for “The Cholmondeley Family”, where the young sons clamber on toppling piles of leather-bound volumes, while their parents, shadowed by towering bookcases, gaze reflectively at their baby, makes harmony out of heartbreak: Hogarth painted the work after the mother’s death; her romping, spotlit boys are unmanageable orphans.

The same bitter-sweet ambivalence of time arrested by mortality characterises “The Graham Children”, which celebrates four siblings’ affectionate playfulness even as it commemorates the youngest child – already dead – with a plethora of images of menace and vulnerability: a cat waiting to snatch a caged bird, two carnations crossed on the ground, a cherub adorning the clock. Hogarth, whose marriage remained childless, is an exceptional portraitist of children, able to capture alongside vivacity and charm an undertow of melancholy and transience which make him a quintessential rococo artist – he was born a year after Tiepolo, the same year as Canaletto and within a few years of Watteau and Boucher; all creators, as the weighty baroque turned frothy, of the exquisitely decorative masquerade.

Hogarth bears multiple reinventions: postmodern master of spectacle; Enlightenment democrat; father of a British art that is now global, multicultural, sexily up to date in addressing his own issues of social integration and political corruption. To prove the point, recent reworkings of his “Marriage” and “The Rake’s Progress”, touching themes of feminism and racism, by Paula Rego and Yinka Shonibare, line the stairs leading to the show at Millbank.

It is not by accident that this triumphalist exhibition was launched in Paris, not London, last autumn. If the Nineties belonged to Britart, the Noughties is the decade when older British art, emboldened by contemporary success, is claiming new historical prominence. The opening next spring of the Louvre’s gallery of English painting, unprecedented in any European museum, is the climax of years of subtle assault, largely by Tate, in which Anglo-French shows – “Constable to Delacroix”, “Turner Whistler Monet”, “Degas, Sickert and Toulouse Lautrec” – have repositioned English painters as key influences in the international arena.

Hogarth, who loathed the French and had never before been shown in France, is a linchpin in the campaign to win for Britain a role as the moderniser of art history. This exhibition is a provocative, persuasive account of his continuing freshness of vision and relevance.

‘Hogarth’ runs at Tate Britain, London, to April 29, tel 020 7887 8008. Then Caixa Foundation, Madrid, May 29-August 26.

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