Are pictures really worth a thousand words? In the Becker Gallery at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, where professors curate shows in conjunction with their classes to expand on certain issues, the answer is yes. Currently in the Becker Gallery is the exhibit "Hogarth's Women: Virtue and Vice in Eighteenth Century England," a show curated by Associate Professor of English Ann Kibbie in conjunction with her class, "Women and the 18th Century Novel."
With the help of Bowdoin's Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Diana Tuite, Kibbie selected prints of the major 18th-century English artist William Hogarth. Hogarth, a painter, printmaker, satirist and social critic, created many series of prints that questioned and explored issues of modern morality.
"In the past, I have used some Hogarth prints in conjunction with other classes," Kibbie said. "But I've never been able to use him to this extent." In the current exhibit, two complete Hogarth series are on display: "Harlot's Progress" and "Marriage à-la-Mode." There is also a smaller series titled "Times of the Day," as well as individual pieces from larger series including one from "Rake's Progress," and one from "Progress of Cruelty." As in other Becker Gallery shows, all of the pieces were selected from Bowdoin's own collection. Hogarth's images are particularly useful for Kibbie's class because they focus on similar subject matter. Throughout the semester, Kibbie's class has read a wide variety of novels by both male and female authors that focus on the female character and the development of female characters throughout the 18th century. Hogarth's images seamlessly fit into this exploration, most obviously in their portrayal of women. Many of his series are satirical narratives showing scenarios and characters lacking virtue, thus highlighting what virtue should be.
In all of these narratives, women play a central role, prodding the viewer?and the reader of the 18th-century novel?to wonder why there was such an intense fixation on the female character. For Kibbie, this interest lies in the fact that "female characters allow authors to explore certain threats to the self. They are often seen as the vessels of societal virtue, and thus what is at the center of both the novels and the prints are questions regarding the threat to female virtue."
Kibbie also wanted her class to see the 18th-century world in detail.
"These beautiful clear prints with their astonishing detail give us incredible access to the past," she said. "Hogarth had a keen eye for the objects of the 18th-century world. It is not just the people in the prints that are characters here, rather the objects in the prints are just as important."
According to Kibbie, this sort of access is very important for students in order to completely understand the time period.
"It's important for students to literally see what the 18th-century world was full of," Kibbie said, mentioning the snuff boxes and the highly articulated forms of fashion. "This type of visual access really brings the world alive."
Many of these prints could be illustrations of the characters students been reading throughout Kibbie's class. This speaks to the pervasiveness of the questions of female character and the status of women throughout the century. In fact, many of the paperback versions of the novels have Hogarth prints on the cover.
"They are not really a true representation of that particular novel, but rather a moment and an intersection of common themes and questions," Kibbie said.
Using the Becker Gallery has been successful experience, according to Kibbie.
"It gives everyone a different kind of access to the past. We are all really used to accessing the past through photographs, but of course we don't have photographic evidence of the 18th-century world. This is the way we can access this past, and it's really quite different than photography," she said.
Kibbie's students echoed Kibbie's enthusiasm for the show. Junior Daniel Lorberbaum particularly enjoyed the opportunity to visually interact with their period of study.
"As Professor Kibbie explained, many scholars see the origins of the graphic novel in these narrative sequences. I think it's really interesting to view them as archetypal when Hogarth himself probably had no idea of their impact on future art and literature," he said.