I spoke in parliament yesterday about the late Robert Hughes. Others had refelcted on his life more broadly, so I focused particularly on his contribution to art criticism. (Delayed by another event, I nearly didn’t make it into the chamber on time, since I was running with American Visions in one hand.)
Robert Hughes, 15 August 2012
Robert Hughes’s life is a difficult one to sum up: 74 years, 15 books, multiple TV series, three wives. The member for Wentworth yesterday in the chamber spoke on Robert Hughes’s passing with wonderful eloquence, as he so often does. I suggested to him afterwards we should create a post of parliamentary eulogist and make it his in permanence.
So many aspects of Robert Hughes’s life could attract mention today: The Fatal Shore, inspired by EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, or his tome on Barcelona, which was an extraordinary piece of work. But I want to focus today on his role as an art critic—I think the leading art critic of a generation—because it was in that capacity that he so much inspired me. It has been noted that Robert Hughes became an art critic by accident. In 1958 he was working as a cartoonist in Sydney for the fortnightly magazine the Observer, then edited by Donald Horne. He recounted that Horne had sacked the magazine’s art critic and snapped at Hughes, ‘You’re the cartoonist—you ought to know something about art.’ And so a career began.
Robert Hughes was himself an artist, not of the ranks of those whose work he analysed but enough to know something of the craft. In an interview with Peter Craven, Craven described Robert Hughes’s own creative work in the following words:
‘He’s pleased that he knows enough about making things to appreciate greatness when he sees it, and to understand the sheer difficulty of creating something that looks simple.’
He left Australia in the 1960s. His friend the writer Alan Moorehead counselled: ‘If you stay here another 10 years, Australia will still be a very interesting place, but you will have become a bore, a village explainer.’ So off he headed, first to Europe and then to the United States.
His tongue could be sharp. American Visions, I think possibly his greatest work, contains some examples of where he could take on those who displeased him. In writing of the work of Barnett Newman, he said the following:
‘At one point Newman said, with a straight face, ‘I thought our quarrel was with Michelangelo.”
Hughes’s deadpan reply:
‘It was not a quarrel anyone could win with a stripe.’
Speaking of Julian Schnabel, one of his great nemeses, Hughes described him as:
‘a roundly self-admiring painter who once compared himself to Duccio, Giotto and van Gogh. Not very close, and no cigar. Schnabel was a perfect painter for a culture of replays.’
But for those whose work he loved he wrote in glowing terms. Writing of Lucian Freud, he said:
‘Every inch of the surface has to be won, must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition — above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.’
Of Goya he wrote his genius lay in his ‘vast breadth of curiosity about the human animal and the depth of his appalled sympathy for it’. Of Caravaggio he wrote:
‘Caravaggio was one of the hinges of Art History. There was Art before him, and Art after him, but they were not the same.’
Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer Prize winning expatriate Australian who is now the art critic for the Boston Globe and perhaps one of those who will pick up Hughes’s mantle, wrote:
‘Robert Hughes, more than any other critic, played an enormous role in converting people to take pleasure in it and to be discerning about it, rather than to feel that sense of suspicion.’
Sebastian Smee pointed out that Hughes helped to create a sense of enjoyment of modern art, to make many of us feel that we could approach it and like it and, most importantly, not like it.
As the National Gallery of Australia director, Ron Radford, said:
‘I had known Robert Hughes since the mid-70s and will miss his eloquent, thought-provoking writing and commentary on Australian art in a national and international context.’
He touched so many Australians through his writing. His great work, particularly on the fine arts, will live on for decades and perhaps centuries to come.