Australian writer who introduced modern art to mass audience
ROBERT HUGHES:ROBERT HUGHES, who has died aged 74 after a long illness, dismissed the notion of Crocodile Dundee as a representative Australian figure as “macho commedia dell’arte”.
All the same, Hughes as the Crocodile Dundee of art criticism is too good a parallel to reject: burly ocker from the outback, tinny in left hand, confronted by New York aesthete armed with stiletto, reaches with his right hand for his own massive bush knife, commenting slyly to his terrified assailant: “Now that’s what I call a knife.”
He was described in the Guardian newspaper once as writing the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay and Dame Edna Everage; Hughes enjoyed the description. His prose was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing. Much he cared.
When he reached a mass audience for the first time in 1980 with his book and television series The Shock of the New, a history of modern art starting with the Eiffel Tower and graced with a title that still resounds in 100 later punning imitations, some of the BBC hierarchy greeted the proposal that Hughes should do the series with ill-favoured disdain. “Why a journalist?” they asked, remembering the urbanity of Lord Clark of Civilisation.
He gave them their answer with the best series of programmes about modern art yet made for television, low on theory, high on the the kind of epigrammatic judgment that condenses deep truths.
Van Gogh, he said, “was the hinge on which 19th-century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism”. Jackson Pollock “evoked that peculiarly American landscape experience, Whitman’s ‘vast something’, which was part of his natural heritage as a boy in Cody, Wyoming”. And his description of the cubism of Picasso and Braque still stands as the most coherent 10-page summary in the literature.
Hughes was born in Sydney into a family of lawyers descended from an Irish policeman who had emigrated to Australia 100 years before Robert’s birth. This was something of which Hughes was obscurely ashamed, because convicts were to be the heroes of his great work of Australian social history, The Fatal Shore (1987). His father died when he was 12, and he went to a Jesuit boarding school, St Ignatius College.
At Sydney University, where he went to study architecture, he was academically undistinguished. However, he went on at the age of 28 to write a book on The Art of Australia. After its publication Hughes went to Europe ending up in London where he wrote art criticism for the Sunday Times.
In London he wrote Heaven and Hell in Western Art (1969), which bombed. However, a Time magazine executive leafed through a copy and promptly hired Hughes as art critic. In 1970 he moved to Manhattan and wrote for Time for the rest of the century.
The Shock of the New was a success around the world; the book was revised and republished in 1991. But, when Moorehead took Hughes under his wing at his house in Tuscany, he told him if he wanted to find a big subject for a book, he ought to consider convicts. Convicts, thought Hughes. I didn’t come all this way to think about convicts but about Piero della Francesca.
Nonetheless, the seed was planted. And when, in tackling a TV series on Australian art, Hughes could find no book to tell him about the experience of Australia’s early settlers, he was committed. “Our past was either denied or romanticised. I wrote The Fatal Shore to explain it to myself.” He followed this in 1990 with a study of British painter Frank Auerbach.
His clearsightedness always eschewed ideology, so that when he wrote a book excoriating American political correctness, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (1993), he found himself ducking flak from left and right.
In 1999 Hughes had a near-fatal car crash in Western Australia, from which legal complications followed. The episode provided the starting point for his memoir Things I Didn’t Know (2006).
The hallucinations he suffered after the crash led him to identify even more strongly with an artist taken up with grotesques and horrors, and in 2004 he produced a long-planned book, Goya.
Hughes is survived by his third wife, Doris Downes. He was predeceased by his son in 2002.
Robert Studley Forrest Hughes: born July 28th, 1938; died August 6th, 2012