But while Petraeus is skewed by political cartoonists on editorial pages, the sinners of yore faced the scathing brush of William Hogarth.
Often called the father of pictorial satire, Hogarth used his artistic talent and sharp wit to shine a spotlight on the sins of 18th-century London. Local collector Andrew Burgin describes Hogarth as “a master satirist,” his work a “sly allusion to what was going on at the time.”
An exhibition of Hogarth’s etchings and engravings, on loan from Burgin, is on exhibit through Dec. 30 at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County. Acquired by Burgin more than 40 years ago at an estate sale in Tallahassee, Fla., the 30 original prints were produced in the mid-1700s.
“They are all over 250 years old,” Burgin pointed out. “I feel certain this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Anniston and Calhoun County.”
According to library director Teresa Kiser, it is the oldest, most historic exhibit the library has ever presented.
Hogarth’s innovations in satirical art created a genre where there was none, paving the way for the political cartoons and comic strips we know today.
His artwork overflows with intricate details and hidden meaning — and more plot twists than a CIA scandal.
“Every little thing has some sort of meaning,” Kiser said. “You would have had to live during that time to understand all of the nuances.”
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in one of Hogarth’s most famous works, “Industry and Idleness.” Included in the exhibit are four prints from the series, which charts the course of two very different apprentices. Hogarth foreshadows the fate of his idle apprentice in forgotten corners of each scene. A discarded copy of “Moll Flanders,” the tale of a fallen woman, can be found in the first print. Later, Idle’s hooker friend is seen admiring an earring shaped like a gallows.
“He was a very earthy man,” Burgin said by way of explanation. “The times were earthy.”
Although more than 250 years old, the “earthy” times Hogarth captures are not hard to imagine today. A man murders his pregnant mistress in a jealous rage. A mother weeps for her rebellious son who’s turned to gambling and theft.
Perhaps the work most shocking, and fascinating, and hardest to turn away from, is “The Four Stages of Cruelty.” The series of four prints documents the grisly progression of inhumanity in society, “each depiction a little more grotesque than the one before,” Kiser said, warning that “some find them disturbing.”
In fact, the artist himself found them disturbing. But the cruelty of the scenes, “the very describing of which gives pain,” Hogarth later wrote, was necessary to affect even “the most strong hearts.”
Moral aim aside, Burgin is quick to point out that even in Hogarth’s darkest caricatures, he makes his point with tongue in cheek. The mistreated hounds in “The First Stage of Cruelty,” for instance, are slyly vindicated in the final scene of the series, where a dog is seen feasting on the internal organs of a freshly executed criminal.
“He had a delicious sense of humor,” Burgin said.
That unassuming yet biting humor, even in the face of moral outrage, permeates the show, cementing Hogarth’s role in the evolution of satire, as we know it. Each print has a story to weave, a secret to share, perhaps even a scandal to break.
And thanks to Hogarth and the satirists who came before, we know how to look those scandals in the face and laugh.
William Hogarth prints
Through Dec. 30: Upstairs gallery at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County, 108 E. 10th St., Anniston.
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday.