1938 - 2012 | NSW | Art critic & commentator
Robert Hughes was one of the 20th century’s most influential art critics, writing for Time magazine for 30 years. His 1980 eight-part television documentary on the development of modern art, The Shock of the New, was successful around the world. He introduced muscular language with combative criticism and flair to change the way people wrote about art and helped a generation of readers to appreciate the best and worst of art. His Australian history book, The Fatal Shore, was an international bestseller
Robert Hughes was one of our nation’s most famous exports but for all his years beyond our shores he never ceased to be, sound like and think like an Australian.
Everything about Bob, for good or ill, was forged in Australia. His keen eye, his ability to see things and not just look at them, was honed by years of fishing for leatherjackets and bream on the jetty at Rose Bay, just as his intellect, his love of history and the arts was inspired by the Jesuits at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview. He once described Sydney Harbour as the amniotic fluid of his memory.
Robert Hughes became one of our greatest writers and one of the world's greatest critics. His account of Australia's convict system, The Fatal Shore, is probably the best-read Australian history. It exposed, in his compelling prose, the systemic brutality bound up in our nation's founding. He made art accessible and fascinating to a generation. And he wrote just as eloquently of the cities he loved – Barcelona and Rome – as he did of fishing.
Robert Studley Forest Hughes was born in Sydney on 28 July 1938, the youngest of four. Despite excelling at school he bombed out of arts, then architecture at the University of Sydney. But he embraced the intellectual life on and off campus and was an enthusiastic member of the Sydney Push.
Hughes got his start drawing cartoons and writing art reviews for The Observer in Sydney. He had a brief employment at the Daily Mirror, abruptly terminated by the young proprietor. Years later I asked Rupert Murdoch what had caused Uncle Bob’s termination and he replied, “I recall it involved an argument over the ownership of a case of champagne.”
In 1964 Highes joined the great generation of expatriate intellectuals to leave Australia, and after some years in Italy and London, fetched up in New York as Time Magazine’s art critic. This dream gig was nearly over before it started. When Time’s senior editor phoned, Highes - stoned and paranoid - mistook him for the CIA and gave him both barrels before hanging up.
Rambunctiously rebellious all his life, the objects of his often-scathing criticism would have loved to dismiss him as an uncouth Australian. But the depth of his scholarship and erudition matched with remarkable eloquence, made that impossible.
Hughes was always short of money and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to be seduced, even corrupted, by the big money in the New York art scene—so many billionaire collectors, so many art dealers, so many shameless commercial artists following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol.
But he did not compromise his judgement and fall into lockstep with what he saw as the conmen of the contemporary art industry. He wrote that Warhol was for art what Henry Ford was for automobiles: the first master of mass production. Of Jeff Koons’ work, he said, “nothing was lost in reproduction and nothing gained in the original.”
Hughes’ book and television series, The Shock of the New, expounded the art of the modern world, the machine world. In this definitive exploration of the rise of modernism, he told us why art mattered: “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.
Young, impossibly handsome and with a rich vocabulary and an even richer, rolling voice—now booming and declamatory, now quieter and drawing you into some delicious irony—Bob became the face and the authority on the art of our world, the modern world.
Yet he lamented the way today’s contemporary art appeared disconnected from the politics and terrifying dramas of our own age.
Goya’s etchings - Desastres de la Guerra—or 'Disasters of War'— scream to us still about the horrors of Napoleon’s war on Spain. But where, Hughes asked, is the great art of 9/11? Was the unbelievable spectacle of the fall of the twin towers—a disaster he saw from his own window in Soho—so surreal, so unimaginable, it could not be painted? As wars rage across the Middle East, Damien Hirst suspends a dead shark in formaldehyde and lines thousands of pills up on mirrored shelves, while Koons casts Michael Jackson and his monkey like a pair of glossy plaster saints.
Bob's critics said he didn't get it—that he, the man who brought us The Shock of the New was now himself uncomfortable with the newest new. I rather think he did get it and moreover, was dismayed that so few of us could see that we in fact were the ones being got.
In art as in life, Bob cherished “the spectacle of skill” and he made his judgements fearlessly according to its presence or absence.
He could skewer with a sentence and his work was unnervingly prescient. In 1993 he took aim at the politically correct in Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, and predicted that the polarisation of US society would splinter its political system.
In 1999, he suffered a near fatal-car crash returning from a fishing trip in WA. The consequences were profound, even after his protracted convalescence – ongoing pain, a long legal battle that resulted in a $2500 fine for dangerous driving, and a perceived schism with Australia, in particular, with the press.
But Hughes drew on the terror he felt—trapped for hours, fearful that he would be burned alive—when he wrote Goya. He said it “unblocked him” to this darkest of artists: “It may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair and pain, cannot fully know Goya.”
Among his many honours were a NSW Premier's Literary Award for Things I Didn’t Know: a Memoir, the WH Smith Literary award for The Fatal Shore, and London's Sunday Times 2000 Writer of the Year. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Melbourne and New York, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, declared an Australian National Living Treasure, and made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1991.
Yet Hughes’ legacy is more far reaching than his vast body of work. He showed us that it was better to embrace excellence than to compromise with the commonplace.
Australians who reach for the stars do so because he taught us to appreciate the spectacle of skill.
And he did that by being one of its greatest exponents.
Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister of Australia. His wife Lucy Turnbull is Robert Hughes’ niece.
Courtesy of News Corp
Courtesy of ABC
The Shock of the New, BBC/Time-Life Films, 1980
The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987
Goya, Robert Hughes, Knopf 2003
Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir, Robert Hughes, Knopf 2006