Thursday, January 11, 2007

The line of beauty

click photo to enlarge
William Hogarth (1697-1764) is an English painter best known for his satirical subjects, works that pilloried the dissolute of eighteenth century England. "The Harlot's Progress" and "The Rake's Progress" show, respectively, through a series of snapshot paintings, the downfall of a country girl, and the journey of a rich merchant's son from monied ease to the famous hospital for lunatics, Bedlam. These works became widely known through the series of engravings that Hogarth published from his original paintings.

The artist is rather less well known for his wonderfully fresh and unaffected portraits. His "Shrimp Girl" is a masterpiece by anyone's reckoning, and his group portrait of his servants shows the character of each individual wonderfully well. Hogarth tried his hand at the grand style of "history painting" but with little success. Theoreticians of art know Hogarth best for his 1753 publication, "The Analysis of Beauty". Much ridiculed by the public and those who should have known better, it was a serious attempt to define what elements made a painting beautiful. Hogarth identified the "S" shaped "line of beauty" as an important factor. Noting how it could be seen in the posture of figures in the works of Renaissance masters, he also showed how a serpentine path through a landscape gave beauty to the composition, and how seemingly disparate objects could be so arranged that this line connected them and worked its influence, subliminally on the viewer. As a treatise it is clearly of its time, but this earnest enquiry into beauty repays study even today.

The double curve of this tendril of the Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila) reminded me of Hogarth's writings. It was searching for the light between the slats of these Venetian blinds in my bathroom. The contrast of the "S" shaped natural form across the dark, regular background looked like it had the makings of a photograph. I used a 70mm (35mm equivalent) macro lens, with the camera on a tripod set to Aperture Priority (f18 at 1.3 seconds), with the ISO at 200, and -2.0EV.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen