Robert Hughes, 1938 – 2012

August 19, 2012
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When Robert Hughes died last week, I spent much of the day on the telephone. Inevitably, the passing of this great, controversial figure was a media event of the first order. Among the mass of small comments I had to produce, the Sydney Morning Herald asked for a quick 500 words. The following day the Australian Financial Review asked for 1,000 words for their Saturday section. I’m reproducing both pieces as they were written, with the titles supplied by the newspapers, knowing that a more considered response to the life and career of Bob Hughes would require a good deal more time and consideration. There has been such an avalanche of commentary that it would be hard to sift through it all, looking for the best pieces. Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull delivered an excellent eulogy, in what is probably his finest speech in Federal Parliament – and a rare instance of bipartisan agreement. I offer the two small pieces below as a small contribution to the tributes, essays and analyses that will continue to appear for many months to come.

An artist in his own writing, words never failed him

Robert Hughes was always larger-than-life. His personality was so forceful that he dominated every gathering in which he took part, from a conference to a casual lunch. He was witty, irascible, opinionated and impatient with fools. Although everyone was his audience, he had a gift for friendship that put people at their ease.

Hughes was one of a generation of great expatriate intellectuals, who had many characteristics in common. Like Barry Humphries, Hughes had the knack of shooting down opponents with one well-turned barb. Like Clive James he had a life-long love affair with the English language, no less obvious in a small magazine article than in a large book. Like Germaine Greer, he had a temper and an ego that occasionally alienated his fans.

He was always destined for success, from his earliest days writing for the old Sydney Observer, but he shot to worldwide prominence with the television series, The Shock of the New (1980). It was the ideal successor to the original art mega-series, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969). Hughes picked up the story where Clark had left off, displaying his gift for the well-turned one-liner.

Although most people probably got to know Hughes through his appearances on TV, he will be remembered for his writing. His early Art of Australia (1966) was a sparkling read, although of dubious value as art history. After spending ten years as art critic for TIME magazine in New York, the book, The Shock of the New (1980) was more sure-footed and became a world-wide hit. His masterpiece is undoubtedly The Fatal Shore (1987), a monumental examination of the early years of Australian settlement. For Hughes this project was a way of paying his dues to Australia. It was a surprise to him that it became an international best-seller, making the small world of colonial history into a topic of global interest.

The Fatal Shore made Hughes one of Australia’s favourite sons. He sacrificed that high esteem after being catastrophically injured in a car accident south of Broome, in 1999. While sympathies were running high, he spoke and acted in a brazen, arrogant manner and was widely criticised. He returned to the United States denouncing Australia, and swearing never to return.

But return he did, and all was forgiven and forgotten. The only problem was the state of his health, which had been permanently shaken by the injuries received in the car crash. For a man like Hughes it was hard to grow old, let alone grow old as an invalid.

A man’s man and a ladies’ man, he was always the centre of attention. A dazzling youth gave way to an impressive maturity. His views were forthright, and expressed with astonishing eloquence. He wrote with intelligence and integrity, and brought a literary flair to the much-maligned discipline of art criticism. In fact, his abilities transcended the boundaries of any genre. He will be remembered, quite simply. as one of Australia’s finest writers.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 07, 2012


A Man of the Augustan era

Australia has never produced a more dazzling prose stylist than Robert Hughes. His chosen medium was criticism – a form often viewed as a secondary form of writing, a parasitical appendage to great art and literature. Yet how much of this perception is due to the shortcomings of those who call themselves ‘critics’? In the hands of a master such as Hughes, art criticism was never anything less than a literary genre.

Whereas so much criticism dies spelunking in an unfathomable pit of academic jargon, or parrots a gallery press release, Hughes perfected a style that was eloquent, opinionated, persuasive and witty. For an aspiring critic, he was an object lesson in how to write for the broadest possible audience.

First of all, don’t imagine that you are simply addressing a jury of your peers, with all the elitist baggage that entails. Don’t talk down to the public, assuming they are incapable of absorbing a difficult idea or an unfamiliar but appropriate word. Always have a point of view – don’t pad out an essay with trivial information. Write every piece, no matter how ephemeral, as if your life depended on it. Never be daunted by carping, small-minded detractors.

Hughes was a fearless critic, but he grew more outspoken as he watched the contemporary art scene being poisoned by the torrent of money pouring out of Wall Street in the early 1980s. It had begun to seem that a work of art was judged primarily on its price tag, with the greatest gimmicks attracting the richest buyers. Hughes’s riposte was a celebrated lecture, ‘Art and Money’, originally delivered in 1984, and included in the anthology, Nothing If Not Critical (1990).

He returned to the topic in a memorable keynote address at Artists Week, at the 1990 Adelaide Festival. Considering the dull fare that is trotted out on these occasions, Hughes’s talk was exhilarating in its forthright criticisms of an art scene trying to make its own decadence seem glamorous and heroic.

He finished with a dig at the rest of the program. “I’m sorry I can’t stick around for Wednesday’s forum on ‘The Influence of French Theory on Australian art’,” he intoned, “but I’ve always been of the opinion that the influence of French theory on Australian art is roughly equivalent to the influence of Australian art on French theory.” With one sentence, a week-long carnival of verbal gymnastics was reduced to nothingness.

Hughes’s forthright opinions, his hatred of humbug and passion for language reminded his publisher, Christopher Maclehose, of Dr. Johnson. Maclehose once suggested that Hughes would be Johnson’s ideal biographer, because he was himself a man of the Augustan era.

This may seem to provide some cheap solace to Hughes’s enemies who accused him of being out-of-touch with the contemporary period. But Hughes was only concerned with those artists and artworks that impressed themselves upon his mind and his senses. Figures such as Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, did not present a major intellectual challenge. The shallowness of their work aroused his scorn rather than any critical reflex. We saw the same Hughes in Mandy Chang’s 2008 documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, in which he made no attempt to disguise his contempt for the Warhol collector, Alberto Mugrabi.

On the other hand, when Hughes admired an artist he never tired of elaborating the reasons why. In 1992 he published an incisive monograph on the British artist, Frank Auerbach, and in 2004 produced the biography of Goya that he had been promising us for so many years.

If Hughes became more of a public figure than almost any art critic since John Ruskin, it was because he had an uncanny understanding of the medium of television, and its potential for reaching a vast audience. The camera loved him, and his 1980 series The Shock of New, became a world-wide hit.

His distinctive, husky voice; his self-confidence, and his talent for a one-liner, made him a charismatic figure on screen. Even in his later years, as he became his own best subject in TV interviews, he had a riveting presence.

It could also be argued that his romance with the box was his undoing, as books were written hastily to meet television production schedules. A volume such as American Visions (1998), for instance, read more like a TV tie-in than a considered work of art history. While he could always write more fluently and entertainingly than any academic historian, he drew heavily on their books and rarely bothered to acknowledge his debt with a footnote. There were points in his career in which substance was overshadowed by showbiz.

The outstanding exception to this practice was The Fatal Shore (1987), Hughes’s history of the early days of Australian settlement. In this book he proved firstly that he was more than just a critic, and secondly that Australian history could be made into a subject of universal interest. It became an international best-seller, much to the surprise of its author, and cemented his reputation in the land of his birth.

Hughes came close to forfeiting that esteem in the most bizarre fashion, after a disastrous car accident on a road south of Broome in 1999 left him hospitalised for many months. I saw him shortly after he had been discharged, and asked about the sum total of the damage. His recital of broken bones went on for many minutes, with barely a pause for breath.

The car accident was life-changing event, not only giving Hughes a glimpse of mortality, but leaving him an embittered semi-invalid. Although he was floating on a wave of public sympathy, his angry, arrogant comments quickly alienated his admirers. The TV series he had come to Australia to film, Beyond the Fatal Shore, was a notable flop. It seemed like a caricature of Australia put together for an American audience.

Hughes went back to New York like a bear hastening to his lair, swearing to never return to that mean little country down under. He had inspired a barrage of criticism, and a lawsuit for defamation from the Perth senior prosecutor – Lloyd Ramey, a man with his own legal problems nowadays.

Gradually a reconciliation was brokered, and Hughes returned to Australia to spruik the first volume of his autobiography, Things I Didn’t Know (2006). It was like old times again, but the suave, handsome, self-confident charmer of previous years, was changed by his injuries and the turmoil he had endured. Suffering numerous supplementary operations, living on pain-killers, Hughes could never recapture the heroic persona of his youth.

For most of us this represents the inevitable pathos of age and incapacity, but for Hughes it was a fall from a great height. He may have been born with a silver spoon dangling from his lip, but no-one had better claims to being a self-made man. His greatest creation was a larger-than-life character called ‘Robert Hughes’, an admired author and speaker, a ferocious wit, the life of every party, the idol of man and woman. We may have lost the dilapidated shell, but this colossal invention has achieved immortality.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 11, 2012