Tag Archives: Paris

The Assault on Culture

On re-reading Stewart Homes The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, 1988, London).

Maybe I should have been reading Grail Marcus Lipstick Traces instead as it is better written and covers the same trajectory as Homes does in The Assault on Culture. Homes follows the history of the various post-war utopian art movements: Cobra, Lettriste, College du Pataphysics, Nuclear Art, the International Movement for the Imaginist Bauhaus, Situationists, Fluxus, Auto-Destructiove Art, Dutch Provos, Kommune 1, Motherfuckers, Yippies, White Panthers, Mail Art, Punk, Neoism, up to Class War in 1985.

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

Homes published his shorter book a year before Marcus – it is shorter and physically lighter than Marcus’s tome. There are other physical differences between the two books – there are no illustrations in Homes, no soundtrack CD – just a densely written history.

Homes declares in the preface that he is writing for the insiders first and others second – Marcus is clearly writing for the others. Also in the preface Homes scorns Andre Breton’s interest in mysticism and magic whereas Marcus brings magic, heretics and, even, God into his preface. Although Homes can’t ignore the historical connections with Lollards and Anabaptists, he didn’t have to worry, the tradition can be traced further back to the completely non-mystical Cynics of Ancient Greece – Diogenes pissing and throwing plucked chickens like the punks – so we don’t have bring religion or magic into it.

Homes might be able to ignore the mysticism but he couldn’t ignore the music and it is the music that provided a focus for Marcus. The music of the Sex Pistols is the beginning and the end for Marcus. So Marcus leaves out Neoism, Mail Art, Fluxus and other groups.

This history could be continued with groups like Negativeland, Survival Research Labs and the Church of the SubGenius and the street art movement. Home’s careful distinction between groups and movements becomes clearer with these examples; Negativeland is clearly a group with a few members whereas street art is a movement with thousands of participating artists.

Paris, Melbourne

Why include street art with these utopian political art practices? It is a hard case to prove, as there are thousands of disparate artists involved with no leaders writing street art manifesto to quote but the trace elements (to use Marcus’s metaphor) are there. From the Letterist International street art has the love of letters and the continuation of an urban exploration and reinvention. The linage between political stencils and street art stencils is clear from Crass and other punk bands. And some street art is an opposition to the contemporary gallery art.

“Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral” – a Situationalist slogan from 1968 that could be the slogan of street art.

Phoenix, Less Ephemeral More Ephemeral, Melbourne


J.B. Greuze – I spit on your grave

Unless you know what you hate you cannot understand what you love. You can’t turn you attention away from what you hate, you have to study it, understand it, even to delight in your passionate hatred. When I saw J.B. Greuze’s headstone in Montmartre cemetery, I wanted to dance on his grave, I wanted to spit on his grave – instead I took a photograph of it. It is awful like his art, adorned with a bronze statue modelled from his painting, “The Broken Pitcher”. This kitsch addition to his tomb reminds me of J.B. Greuze’s worst painting and exactly why it is so awful.

J.B. Greuze's grave in Montmartre cemetery

It is not that J.B. Greuze (1725-1805) is a bad painter; at one time he was regarded as the best painter in the world. Denis Diderot praised him for paintings that “arouse in our hearts hatred of vice and a love of virtue.” (Quoted in Eliza Pollard, Boucher and Greuze, 1904, p. 44) but the critics soon came to their senses. It is Greuze’s subject matter that is disgusting; the loss of virginity in a metaphor as crude as a broken pitcher is just awful. Greuze painted other domestic tragedies with allusions to loss virginity. The hypocrisy of hectoring with a painting espousing virtue with intentions that are basically sordid might have fooled some deluded people for a while but it couldn’t last.

Considering J.B. Greuze’s concentration on images pubescent girls in comparison to the photographs of Bill Henson. I realize that Henson’s neutral moral view in his photographs disturbs some people because it forces the moral interpretation back on the viewer. The kind of people who find Henson’s photographs disgusting lack the ability to make moral judgements themselves and want others to provide moral dictates. Greuze’s moral position is clear, he looks at a young woman who has lost her virginity as ruined; I hate him for being a willing proponent of this kind of thinking. He is the 18th century equivalent of the kind of warning used in advertisements about teenage alcohol abuse.

Virtues may well a reflection of a cultures values but that doesn’t mean that all of the values are ethical, coherent or desirable for all times. Espousing virtuous sentiments are too often a mask for a lack of any core ethical behaviour; J.B. Greuze’s paintings have the feel of a pious priest who sexual abuses children.

I can understand that once people were fooled by Greurze’s paintings. But I can’t understand why J.B. Greuze still has followers who still leave flowers on his grave, why does anyone still like his art? Was it some half-crazed, cloistered, post-graduate student of art history who had to express admiration for the artist?

I don’t hate many artists as completely as I hate J.B. Greuze; I also hate Ellsworth Kelly but for completely different reasons, mostly for the waste of my energy walking past his enormously large and vacuous paintings.


Gustave Moreau Museum

Every time I have visited Paris (all 3 times in my entire life) I have visited this small museum, a favourite of the French Surrealists, the home and studio of Gustave Moreau. Visiting the museum is a great experience and an education for any painter. The Surrealists were the first to recommend the museum but their advice wasn’t popular. When I first visited in the winter of 1984, there were prostitutes working the street and I was the only visitor at the museum. But now the area is more sedate and the museum is even crowded with groups of art students.

Moreau’s symbolist paintings may be less out of fashion now but his fantastic visions of Biblical and classical scenes are still strange. His paintings are bejewelled, ornate, detailed and full of strange symbolist psychological overtones. For this reason his paintings are sometimes included in books of fantastic art but Moreau is a conventional late 19th century painter, a professor at the Paris’ École des Beaux Arts, who lived a comfortable bourgeois life.

In his formal parlour, located underneath the two floors of studio. There is his own art collection, works by Tournour, Burne-Jones, Berchere, along with a portrait of Moreau by Degas. There is also his collection of butterflies, tiger cowrie shells, stuffed birds, a few books, medals and his personal effects. The clutter and extravagance of late 19th Century taste. You can even use his neo-classical toilet with pull-chain to flush; the original ceramic bowl and hand basin are still functional. It is a unique toilet experience.

Toilet at Gustave Moreau Museum

Handbasin at the Gustave Moreau Museum

The studio is hung salon style full of finished and unfinished paintings. It shows every stage of the development of his paintings. You can follow the development of paintings from plaster casts and preparatory drawings, through the rough studies, clay or wax models to sketch figures from, half finished and on to the finished full sized paintings of the same composition. I am particularly interested in his underpaintings that are often wildly different in technique from the carefully finished work.

unfinished painting by Gustave Moreau

To visit the studio is an education in 19th century painting techniques. His importance as a teacher continues after his death in this museum; during his lifetime he taught at the École des Beaux-Arts.

In many it is clear that Moreau starts his paintings on canvas onto which he draw the outline in charcoal or pencil. He then adds the basic colours of the underpainting in a bold manner, although light areas remain untouched to allow the white gesso to reflect light back through the semi-transparent oils. After this he adds his black line drawing, or a white line if the background is very dark, fills in colours and glazes, working from the background to the foreground. However his technique varies between detailed classical colouring in of ink underpainting to loose impressionist brush and palette knife work. In these variety of techniques there are the beginnings of all kinds of modern figurative techniques. It is worth considering that his most famous students were Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault.

There is so much to see in this small museum that it would take days to see all the drawings, to take in the meaning of huge clutter of objects, to absorb the painting techniques. It is part of rare type of art gallery that is the work of one person: in London the equivalent is the Sir John Soane’s Museum (amazing architectural ideas), in Milan the Fondazione Artistica Poldi-Pezzoli (with collections of art, lace, watches and more) and in Dijon the Musée Magnin (home of a family of art collectors). These former residences show art in a more intimate manner, surrounded by period furniture and other collections. They show a particular tastes and interests and not the work of curatorial committees. They may not contain the most famous works of art in Europe but they are amongst my favourite museums.


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