The latest exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, entitled Captive Bodies, showcases various depictions of prisoners and prison life in Britain from 1750 to 1900. The art consists mostly of sketches that were reproduced as prints, so that they could be seen by a wide audience. The images show the many injustices of the prison system, as well as how prisons and prison reform have evolved. The images ask the viewer to consider if or how justice plays a role in prisons, and how society treats those we deem wrongdoers.
One of the first pieces is a sketch by Hogarth, an 18th-century British artist most famous for his lighthearted “Marriage à la Mode” series. In this exhibition, the artist presents “A Rake’s Progress,” a series in which the protagonist goes from being a wealthy inheritor to squandering his fortune and ending up in debtors’ prison. In both series, the artist pokes fun at the frivolities and wastefulness of the bourgeois class. The artist draws upon his own family’s experience, when his father recklessly spent the family money and landed in prison. The use of print media is significant because the pieces could be widely distributed. In fact, Hogarth’s depictions of prison overcrowding brought the issue to public attention and was a catalyst to the prison reform movement in the late 18th century. The protagonist, still dressed in his dandy clothes, is surrounded by menacing figures, some so sick they look to be on the verge of dying, in an overcrowded composition. Art, which has always been a political act, here criticizes an unjust system. It is not moralizing: it does not ask the viewer to consider the crimes the people have committed, it merely asks the viewer to consider the poor conditions in which the prisoners have been forced to live.
Similarly, in another piece by George Romney — no relation to the Republican politician — prison conditions are examined, and the artist seems to question if the inhumane treatment of inmates is not perhaps more serious than the inmates’ own crimes. The composition, with a strong diagonal, immediately brings the focus to the drama at center stage and is reminiscent of Giotto’s famous fresco “The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Here, the desperately imprisoned man can be seen as Lazarus, and the prison reformer John Howard is depicted as Christ, attempting to revive him. The biblical message underscores the moral duty man has to his fellow humans, suggesting that even when man has wronged he can be redeemed, and it calls into question poor treatment of prisoners.
Biblical imagery abounds in the exhibit, as also seen in a piece by Thomas Ryder, who was an artist at the time of the “sentimental revolution”. It draws from a book by Laurence Sterne, who wrote about travelling through Europe and visiting the Bastille, one of the world’s most famous prisons. The central figure depicted looks saint-like. Perhaps he, like many saints, has been unjustly condemned. The British artist contrasts the captivity many people were subject to with newfound conceptions of “British liberty.” The prisoner here is a victim, not a perpetrator. A different piece entitled “Ayr Prison” is a design for a prison that incorporates religious elements. Solitary confinement can be seen as closely related to the Christian belief in solitary reflection on one’s own life, much like a monk. This prison design was influential on American prisons.
Other pieces suggest the psychological element of imprisonment. A piece by William Blake is a classic Romantic watercolor, with macabre elements that suggest an emotional depiction of a prisoner. There is artistic synthesis between Blake’s illustration and an anguished poem by Thomas Gray that has been physically incorporated into the work. In another piece, Giovanni Piranesi depicts a sinister prison building that calls to mind Dante’s levels of hell, which cannot be escaped by wrongdoers. There are multiple floors, some decorated with menacing objects. Drawn by an architect, it is unclear if he sympathizes with the criminals or if he derides the prison system like many of the artists of the other works in the show. This could be read as an architectural plan for a dream prison that endlessly punished sinners.
Another piece by Hendrick Steenwyck highlights the architecture of the prison, with its neo-Gothic groin vaulted ceilings, rather than the plight of the prisoner. He was one of the first British artists to work in a genre besides portraiture. A drawing by Thomas Malton the Younger illustrates a prison building in London. The size and menacing effect, combined with the rusticated walls, were intended to deter crime and show the role architecture plays in our psychology. The fortress was placed in the center of town to underscore the social order.
This is a timely show considering the national conversation about prison reform and the rise of private prisons, especially called to attention by the show “Orange is the New Black.” The exhibit shows how, though concerns over prison conditions have been present for centuries, the fight is not over. Indeed, Yale itself has several student groups dedicated to addressing these issues. In a notebook where visitors can share their thoughts, many expressed concern about the current prison system in the United States, and the mistreatment of prisoners that continues today.
Claire Kalikman | email@example.com