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.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

5 responses to “J.B. Greuze – I spit on your grave

  • emjayzed

    Extremely well written, I love your fearless honestly.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks, it has taken awhile to complete that post. The more I thought about exactly what I hated and put my thoughts into words the better it became.

    • emjayzed

      I agree! Blending passion and honesty makes for a great read – so thank you for both educating and entertaining me!

  • Georges Alexander Magri

    I totally disagree!How could one be so virulent in one’s words? And spitting on a dead artist’s grave,indeed! Shame!I sense a hint of ‘ un artiste manque’ here, a failed artist who resorts to being an art ‘critic’in Australia,of course , (very understandable) and presumably gives an odd lecture now and then in the great Aussie outback to kangaroos and their ilk!Greuze happens to be a great favourite of many and you must have irritated most of them.You can dislike his art but not declare such primitive behaviour as ” dancing and spitting” on his grave.Even your Aborigine counterparts would agree here.They would disown you for such crass,base and disturbing comments.

    • Mark Holsworth

      It is fine that you totally disagree but I think that you answer your second question with your own words. To repeat myself from the post: “The hypocrisy of hectoring with intentions that are basically sordid might have fooled some deluded people for a while but it couldn’t last.” It might have helped if you had read the whole post rather than the headline. You have confirmed everything that I suspected of admirers of Greuze.

      You and other readers might not be aware that I Spit On Your Grave is a very violent rape revenge film from 1978. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Spit_on_Your_Grave Very appropriate for discussing Greuze’s painting “The Broken Pitcher”.

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