If you’ve been paying attention, this isn’t my first comparative post between street art and “high” art. For a ROA/Stubbs comparison, you’ll find it here. And for a Fanakapan/Claesz comparison, here.
I’ve really enjoyed comparing these two worlds. I use the term “high art” as a sort of imperfect, but convenient generalisation. An easy way to differentiate between the two artists I’m featuring.
Even though I would argue it’s a slightly outdated term, we still use the idea of “high art” to define works you would more likely find in high-brow art galleries, something distinct from “popular” or “low” art. Through my blog posts, I hope you’ll see that there’s a lot more crossover than you might initially expect. Although, despite all of my objections, I’m using the term anyway!
This time I’m talking about Conor Harrington. If you know his work, you might think that he would be a pretty easy one to compare to a high artist, but I actually struggled quite a bit. He is often inspired by the seventeenth century Baroque, full of drama, movement and theatre. Just think Peter Paul Rubens or Rembrandt. Jumping forward a bit chronologically, there’s also a French Revolution vibe in his most recent exhibition, The Story of Us and Them, which would lend itself quite nicely to a comparison with Eugène Delacroix. However, it’s the juxtaposition in Harrington’s work which I find really engaging and I think that’s what I’m going to run with.
As an Irish-born artist, now living in England and based in East London, Harrington understands the experience of living between two worlds.
He’s all about duality:
He’s a studio artist and a street artist.
In his studio work, he sometimes combines oil and spray paint, two media you don’t often find together.
His pieces explore the civilised control of eighteenth century art as a cover for humanity’s underlying violence.
He uses aesthetics of the past to highlight the issues of the present.
And he takes concepts from the Old Masters and puts them up on the modern streets of London (as well as other places all over the world). It’s a fascinating mix.
Another artist who was all about the duality of human nature and the animalistic tendencies skulking beneath society’s cool, neo-classical exterior was William Hogarth (1697 – 1764).
Neo-classical humans were the calm, composed figures of Gainsborough’s portraits (‘posed’ being the operative word), but the reality was probably something closer to Hogarth’s prints of everyday life. Although these were satirical so it’s important to take them with a healthy dose of salt. I read a Guardian article where Hogarth’s work was described as “a fun-house mirror image of the monster city that spawned it”, which is probably one of my favourite descriptions ever and, I think, spot on for Hogarth. So it’s real life, but an exaggerated, slightly distorted version of it.
Hogarth was born in London, he was apprenticed to a silversmith, but quickly realised that his skills lay in engraving narrative scenes rather than precious metals. He focused on the real lives of Londoners, almost always with a moral edge, and he drew on the pitfalls of modern life under the civilised exterior of Georgian society. The thing to know about Hogarth as well is that almost all of his works were produced in series. So it was several paintings (later turned into prints) which made up one story.
For example, Marriage a la Mode, produced around 1743, consists of six scenes. At first glance in the initial image, nothing seems particularly untoward. It is an assortment of wealthy upper class individuals in a wealthy upper class residence. But just beneath the surface there’s a story to read there.
On the far right, the aged Earl is trying to marry off his daughter to the son of a wealthy city merchant. He is shown holding his family tree to prove his exceptional breeding (basically he’s spent all his money and now all he’s got going for him is his name. Yet despite his poor finances, he’s still building a new house which you can see just out the window). The crutches and his bandaged foot indicate that he has gout, a disease associated with overindulgence and greed.
The merchant’s son, on the far left, obsessing with his reflection in the mirror, is hiding his own secret. The black spot just under his jaw. He’s got syphilis, a venereal disease. Awkward. And possibly why his wife-to-be sitting next to him isn’t looking too thrilled. As if warning against their impending arranged marriage, the two dogs by the son’s feet are chained miserably together. I won’t go into every image of the six-part series, but to cut a long story short, it ends with the murder of the son and the daughter’s suicide. Happy families.
Harrington and Hogarth are both social commentators. Hogarth highlighted issues in society which were a growing concern and were often being ever more pointedly ignored by the general populace. We can see this in Humours of an Election, which was produced as a series of four paintings in 1755.
Humours of an Election (see above) followed the hypothetical election of a Member of Parliament in Oxfordshire in 1754 and it was intended as a commentary on the inherent corruption in the electoral system. Before the Great Reform Act in 1832, which massively overhauled the British voting system, elections were a bit of a shambles, which Hogarth has made abundantly clear here. The story starts with chaos and ends with chaos.
Forget about voting for who you actually wanted: the practice of open voting rather than by secret ballot meant that you were under the eagle eye of the candidates from start to finish.
Bribery was also rife: in the second image, front and centre, we see both a Tory and a Whig candidate (the two major parties at the time) trying to bribe an innkeeper for his vote, and on the right a woman sits in front of the tavern counting the fruits of her bribery.
Then in the third image, in desperation, we see mentally ill and dying voters being dragged to the polls for their treasured votes by their well-dressed, supposedly respectable candidates. In the background of that image is a broken carriage with a woman inside it – unfortunately Britannia’s broken down on her way to the polls. A broken Britannia, a broken Britain.
In the final image, the Tory candidate has won and is being carried through the streets in a victorious procession. In reality, it looks more like a riot than a celebration. The Tory candidate is about to fall off his chair, the screaming pigs wreak havoc in the foreground and the humans are no better. The wrestling pair in the foreground of that final image remind me a lot of Harrington’s wrestling figures. For example, his mural for the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition (see central image below), used seventeenth and eighteenth century art in the Gallery’s collection and especially Charles Le Brun’s Massacre of the Innocents (1660) to create his two fighting men, in Regency costume, as an interpretation of global powers turning on themselves (or the “massacre of the not-so-innocent” as he put it).
The Story of Us and Them (2018) also uses warring figures to explore concepts of patriotism, particularly in today’s increasingly polarised society. The red / blue colour scheme accentuates that divide. They remind me of soldiers in the American Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century. The juxtaposition between the smart army uniforms and the vicious brawling of his figures mirrors the fragility of eighteenth century sensibility, quickly abandoned in favour of a good ol’ punch up (I think one ate the other’s scone).
In both studio and street art, Harrington has likewise been inspired by contemporary events and issues. In 2012, his Dead Meat series (see below) took the central theme of a feast, playing on a growing obsession with consumerism in many parts of the world. Looking at empire and the general decline of European power, Harrington drew inspiration from the eighteenth century. He saw the century as the height of European entitlement and superiority, and so the perfect century to use to explore the collapse of the old power. It’s also out with the old and in with the new, and the new power encroaching on the old in the twenty-first century is comparable to the eighteenth-century “middling sort”: the new money that was on its way up in the world thanks to increasing trade, commerce and the financial benefits of a growing empire.
We can see that very clearly in Hogarth’s work. For example, in The Rake’s Progress, one of Hogarth’s most famous print runs, produced in 1734, poor naive Tom is part of this rising middle-class, and even though he ends up with a venereal disease, in debtor’s prison, and eventually dead (always a happy ending with Hogarth), he represents a young middle-class man attempting to imitate his aristocrat higher ups.
Hogarth knew how to play on popular taste. The novel, a new form of fiction at the time, was becoming increasingly trendy, as were ballad operas which used familiar and popular music with spoken dialogue (it wasn’t all in Italian anymore). Hogarth tapped into this trend by making his art like a theatrical performance. He wrote himself that he would approach his “modern moral subjects” as if “my picture was my stage”.
In addition, he was lucky to live in a time where the artworld was becoming increasingly commercialised; his work could be viewed in shop windows and sold in print shops (I could very easily get into the history of glass shop fronts here and the origins of “window shopping”, but I won’t. You’re welcome). People could discuss his work at the increasingly popular coffee shops, part of Britain’s burgeoning coffee culture where people of different (although still very limited) walks of life could rub shoulders, and Hogarth became so widely known because he sold his engravings as part of a subscription. They were still expensive, but they were more accessible than a commission for a full-size oil painting. Furthermore, works that were considered “morally educating”, such as his Industry and Idleness series, he instructed them to be printed “in the cheapest Manner possible” so that more people would have access to them.
In a similar sense, we are currently living in an unparalleled era of mass media, when a huge amount of information is available at the click of a button. Harrington has said himself that “most artists from my generation would be almost unknown without Instagram.” He sees it as a mixed blessing, but can’t deny the impact it’s had on general accessibility to the artworld.
It’s been so interesting pinpointing what connects these two artists. Both Harrington and Hogarth make you stop and think. You want to know the story behind the figures in Harrington’s murals, why they’re fighting, what past age they come from. And his studio work is an absorbing exploration of today’s issues: his compositions, particularly in the Dead Meat and Eat and Delete series, really draw you in as you try to make out the objects and symbols in his distorted, streaked style. And it often seems to have just as much of a story behind it as a Hogarth series of prints. Although, Hogarth really takes this to another level. You could spend hours pouring over one of Hogarth’s series and keep finding new elements to the story, new underlying symbols, new links between his characters.
Conor Harrington is also an excellent example of that fine line between “high” art and street art. For example, earlier in his career Harrington thought that there was an unbridgeable gap between these two worlds. This inspired him to produce a body of work where the canvas was divided starkly in two, with one side being figurative and realistic and the other far more abstract. As his style progressed, however, these two sides increasingly merged until they became complimentary influences rather than competing forces. It’s the idea that reworking historic artworks can produce something fresh and exciting, in the same way that a DJ might use sampled music to create a new sound. It’s this exciting mix that makes Harrington’s work so fascinating, and makes him well worth comparing to William Hogarth, who sought to reinvent print media in the eighteenth century. Hogarth used a perceived “plebeian” or popular medium (print), brought his own sophistication and finesse to it, and made high art far more accessible to the public. And similarly, as a street artist, Conor Harrington brings a historically-influenced style to the streets, where everyone can enjoy it. Just as I’ve used this comparison to show that street art is just as worthy of our attention as high art, it works both ways. For someone who loves street art, to see Conor Harrington’s work, that individual may realise that there might be more for them within the walls of Tate Britain or the National Gallery than they originally thought. Obviously there are plenty of people who already love both artforms, but I like the idea that this crossover may touch individuals from the two, often polarised, worlds.
Hogarth we see in the National Gallery or the John Soane Museum, and if he wanted to Conor Harrington could probably stop painting streets and stick exclusively to gallery commissions. It’s not like he gets paid for his walls. He’s said himself that, “As soon as I paint walls for money it’s all over.” He paints the walls for fun and they often tie in with his studio work. The murals are an escape from the professional restrictions of the art world, the exhibitions, the curators etc. And this freedom is a vital part of the look and soul of street art.