Robert Hughes: Requiem For A Heavyweight
By Stephen CrittendenAugust 10, 2012
Robert Hughes was an explorer — of language, history, art, and of what was worthy (or not) of our serious attention.
With the death of Robert Hughes at 74, Australia has lost its most glamorous public intellectual.
In losing him, we also have lost the first of that colourful quartet of expats — Hughes, Greer, Humphries and James — who have kept coming back to Australia for so many years to tell us who we are, and then going away again to tell the world about us. They each have contributed original perspectives on the world and have been independent of others in what they thought or said. Of the four, Humphries is of course the towering comic genius. But it was Hughes who was undoubtedly the deepest and most rigorous thinker.
Australia has produced few if any prose stylists to equal him. It's a style that owes much to his Jesuit education, and to the 18th century — the epigrammatic concentration and balance of Edward Gibbon combined with the flexibility and vitality of Thomas Babbington MacAulay.
His precocious talent was already on display in the pages of the Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit, in which he shared a playful regular column with fellow student Andrew Riemer — they took turns in writing in the style of a different famous author each week. Here is Hughes, in 1959, doing Samuel Beckett:
"I am sitting in a room. On a small eminence beyond I can discern what may be a church. Perhaps it is my mother…"
Hughes also drew cartoons for Honi Soit. One of the best shows two abstract figures looking at a painting. One says to the other: "It might as well be a photograph."
Clive James was another of Hughes's contemporaries at Sydney University, and in his Unreliable Memoirs James describes a character named Huggins — based on Hughes — an impossibly handsome, impossibly brilliant, impossibly connected buck who gets around the university with a beautiful girl on each arm. He writes, "In Huggins I could clearly see the reality of talent, as opposed to the rhetoric of pretension. What he said he would do, he would do. What he did was in demand. He was on his way." One has the clear impression that James knew he was also outclassed by Hughes's intellect.
Hughes had a very synthetic intelligence — the ability not just to analyse, but to put things in their context. And he had that characteristic of some very intelligent people, of being able to make connections between apparently unconnected things that seem very far apart. He wasn't just an art critic, but also an historian who was always interested in the long march of history. Re-reading Hughes, one is constantly reminded of the high moral seriousness that saturates everything he wrote.
Much has been made of his early membership of 'The Push', that over-mythologised movement that was such a quintessential expression of Sydney's hyper-materialism. But, while Hughes lost his Catholic faith early, there is nonetheless a Catholic sensibility running through much of his work that is often overlooked.
It is there, for instance, in an important early book of his, Heaven and Hell in WesternArt (1968), and in the description in his memoirs, Things I Didn't Know (2004), of his own frightening vision of Death:
"He was sitting at a desk, like a banker. He made no gesture, but he opened his mouth and I looked right down his throat, which distended to become a tunnel: the bocca d'inferno of old Christian art."
It was also there in his enthusiasm for Spain and the innate feeling and understanding he brought to Goya (2003), his darkly glittering study of the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya — a work as valuable for its unforgettable portrait of the squalor and senility of Catholic Spain in the 18th century — violent, poor, ignorant, priest-ridden, witch-obsessed — as it is for his portrait of the artist. This passage on the stultifying effects of the Spanish Inquisition made a tremendous impression on me:
"In 1770 … the spirit of enquiry at Spanish universities had been brought so low by the interventions of the Holy Office that out of 33 professorial chairs in Spain, 29 were empty … Not one of the mechanical advances that we now associate with the so-called Age of Reason was made first in Spain, or came there soon or easily: not small pox vaccination, not the steam engine linked to a flying shuttle that revolutionised fabric production in England but didn't reach Spain for half a century, not the thermometer, the mechanical seed drill, the train, or the simplest electric generator…"
Goya is probably Hughes's finest book, although some, including his friend Barry Humphries, have suggested that his enduring masterpiece will be The Fatal Shore(1987), about Australia's first settlement by Europeans. Although that book contains many fine passages, I'm not sure its vision was so very original that it managed to reframe our national foundation story.
In any case, my favourite is Nothing If Not Critical(1991), the anthology of short essays, mostly taken from Hughes's columns for Time magazine. This is a wonderful, wonderful book — surely one of the finest collections of essays on art and artists in the English language. Almost every single piece is a short masterpiece and still as fresh as it first seemed 20 years ago. Who else had his ability to summarise a painter in a single, memorable phrase or line? There's the "bourgeois Eden" conjured by the paintings of Henri Matisse. Or Hughes's take on the early works of René Magritte: "He had a poor sense of colour and his drawing was mere tracing. The paint surface is as dead as an old fingernail." And Jackson Pollock, dying at 44, "a puffy, mean James Dean, in a big American car with two girls in it". Or, what the election of Ronald Reagan meant for Andy Warhol and his cronies:
"The familiar combination of private opulence and public squalor was back in the saddle; there would be no end of parties and patrons and portraits."
And how's this for writing? When Hughes describes Mark Rothko suiciding "like Seneca but without the bath" in his New York studio in 1970:
"He lay, fat, exsanguinated, clad in long underwear and black socks, in the middle of a lake of blood; and this miserable death not only cast a lurid glare of publicity over his work but seemed to write the colophon to a period of American art, marking the end of Abstract Expressionism."
And while hick Australians were still grumbling back home about the National Gallery of Australia wasting public money in purchasing Blue Poles, Hughes, in a bravura performance of his own, was showing us how to actually read a Jackson Pollock:
"Many of the passages of his 'heroic' paintings of 1947-51 remind one of Monet, or even of Whistler. Fog, vagueness, translucency, the scrutiny of tiny incidents pullulating in a large field — the title Pollock gave his most ravishingly atmospheric painting, Lavender Mist, 1950, about sums it up. In it one sees the delicacy — at a scale that reproduction cannot suggest — with which Pollock used the patterns caused by the separation and marbling of one enamel wet over another, the tiny black striations in the dusty pink, to produce an infinity of tones."
One of the things that made Hughes the leading art critic of his generation was that he was tough-minded enough to see the vacuous, over-hyped sham that modern art in late-20th-century New York had become, and fearless enough to say so. Of Julian Schnabel he writes:
"The tinkle of his broken plates — which have lately developed the irksome habit of falling off the paintings, so that he now has a factotum who flies about America gluing them back on — is heard from sea to shining sea."
Then there's his piece "Requiem for a Featherweight", on painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988, an obituary so savage that re-reading it never fails to send me into gales of laughter. Hughes writes of Basquiat's appeal to the ignorant young. To them, he says, the over-hyped Basquiat was "living proof that one could make it straight out of the egg — no waiting".
Hughes is still probably best known for his BBC television series on the history of Modernism, The Shock of the New (1980), which still stands up as a gobsmacking piece of television after 32 years, the apogee of a vision that began with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, but which has now — unfortunately for the culture — all but petered out.
Every second line in Shock of the New is memorable. French Dadaist Francis Picabia is described as having "a flair for the old in-out: mechanical sex, mechanical self"; the city of Brasilia, in the middle of the Amazon jungle is painted as "miles of jerry-built nowhere infested with Volkswagens"; the high-rise towers of La Defense on the edge of Paris are "experienced by everybody as a piece of social scar-tissue, gimmicky, condescending, Alphaville modernism".
As he saunters towards the camera with his jacket over his shoulder, those long, low-slung baritone vowels and the occasional punctuating raised eyebrow, it is easy to see why he was not only one of the finest writers, but also one of the finest broadcasters Australia ever has produced.
I interviewed Hughes several times, most memorably on the ABC Radio's AM program on the morning news broke that Australian painter Brett Whiteley had been found dead in a seaside motel room south of Sydney. Hughes was plainly angry with Whiteley and commented that the artist had coarsened his talent with heroin.
When he came into the studio on one occasion, to be interviewed by my colleague Ellen Fanning, he was reeking of alcohol. "Shut your eyes or you'll bleed to death," she joked at him in that broad Queensland drawl she occasionally unleashes. For a moment he was stunned into silence by her cheek. Then suddenly he boomed and roared with laughter that he couldn't stop. That good humor wasn't the least of the many virtues that endeared Robert Hughes to Australians and to the world.