On 16 May 2006 an exhibition organized by the State Hermitage together with the British Council and the PRO ARTE Institute, with support from the Ford Foundation, opened in the Foyer of the Hermitage Theatre. The exhibition presents more than 30 etchings from the collection of the State Hermitage and the British Council, London. The works of three creative personalities from different ages have been united by a common theme - The Rake's Progress
William Hogarth (1697-1764) was a personality of great importance for British art. As an 18th century engraver, painter and caricaturist, he created works depicting striking and dramatic scenes from English everyday life which was going through its bourgeois revolution. Among the etchings which were published in 1735 as A Rake's Progress, there are 8 scenes portraying the life of Tom Rakewell, a wealthy heir who has rejected morality. At the start of the series, he is kind, youthful and full of "the cream of English charm," as Evelyn Waugh splendidly described it. The hero does not want to follow the example of his cheerless father's virtue and he moves to London. There he enjoys the delights of life in the capital and pursues new discoveries, trying to make his way in high society. However, he more and more yields to base passions, going through his father's money in bordellos and taverns, and ending his days in Bedlam, the London shelter for the mentally ill, where, as his last hope for spiritual salvation, a peasant girl reaches out to him and eases his final torment.
Centuries later Hogarth's time and personages fascinated the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who moved from postwar Europe to comparatively well-off America and saw a resemblance between London of the 18th century and New York of the 1950's. Stravinsky wrote the opera The Rake's Progress to a libretto by British poet W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
Stravinsky's opera met with a radical critique in 1951 and was called an anachronism from an old man which was merely a curiosity in the context of contemporary art. The world had just gone through World War II and after Hiroshima it paused in anticipation of yet another world war. Against this background, the sufferings of Tom Rakewell as depicted by Hogarth seemed old-fashioned experiences of funny marionettes. However, The Rake's Progress is scarcely about resuscitating and setting to music 18th century drawings. The changes which were introduced into the subject by the composer and the poet turn the story of Tom Rakewell into a Faustian tale of the life's journey of a human soul tossed upon the cruel and dangerous world of reality. Notwithstanding all the refined stylistics full of allusions to the 18th century, the structure of the opera and its scope are reminiscent of medieval mystery plays which symbolically present a picture of the world in dramatic form. The nature of the tale is defined by its finale in Bedlam, which is presented not as a scene of punishment but as the justification and salvation of Tom.
David Hockney (born in 1937), the third artist presented in the exhibition, has interpreted the content of Hogarth and Stravinsky's works from the point of view of the rebellious 1960s-1970s. The main character in his series of 16 etchings, a touching and clumsy bespectacled man from the provinces who is crushed by the big city, elicits the sympathy of both author and viewer.
Hockney's etchings and their success assured him a prestigious commission to create the decorations for Stravinsky's opera when it was staged at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1975. But unlike his series entitled A Rake's Progress in New York, which was related to Hogarth only in terms of inner reflections, Hockney's decorations for the opera follow Stravinsky's intent and convey precisely the "spirit of Hogarth and his age," stylizing (but by no means imitating) the 18th century and Hogarth's language in the same degree that the music and text of the opera do.
Excerpts from Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress are will be performed in the Hermitage Theatre by the "eNsemble" of the PRO ARTE Institute.
The curator of the exhibition is A.V. Ippolitov, senior researcher of the Department of Western European Art in the State Hermitage. A scholarly illustrated catalogue of the exhibition has been prepared and features articles by A.V. Ippolitov and L.A. Dukelskaya, senior researcher, Department of Western European Art, State Hermitage.