Books: Bob, we hardly knew you

Robert Hughes

 ROME -- When I was literary editor of the Sydney weekly The Bulletin Robert Hughes supplied dinkuses, the small drawings which give some visual relief within slabs of prose.  He was an 23 year old architecture student, forceful and unusually articulate.  On hearing that Hughes was leaving for London, a journalistic colleague said ‘I’d like to be there when the Hughes front collapses’.

 But it did not collapse.  At the Venice Biennale some years later Hughes told me, with delighted surprise, that he had been appointed as the art critic of Time magazine. In those years it meant unlimited travel and expenses but also allowed him time to write several successful books.

 Knopf has paid him the tribute of a collection of selections from his books to which it adds 155 pages of a previously unpublished Memoir.   The impressive selections range from his writing on art ( The Shock of the New, Nothing if not Critical, American Vision and Goya ) to fishing (A Jerk on One End ), cities ( Barcelona and Rome), Australia (The Fatal Shore) and autobiography ( ThingsI Didn’t Know and the incomplete Memoir).   There is nothing from Art in Australia and his three other books on art or, unfortunately, from the polemical The Culture of Complaint.

 The most personal new piece is a meditation on the suicide of his 21 year old son Danton which, with a nod to Germaine Greer’s Daddy We Hardly Knew You, is called Danton -  I Hardly Knew You.  It shows Hughes’s remorse at his failing a child ‘when I was living a life that was comprised of infidelities, booze, my responsibilities as a card-carrying member of the New York literati, and mired in a marriage with an equally challenged partner – we both suffered from episodic depression, anger at one another’s affairs, we were both emotional cripples trying to raise a boy who would always try to bridge the gaps in our despair but ended as the pawn in our unrelenting marital war.”  It ends: “My hope  is to recall more of Danton, as painful as the memories may be for me, so that his life can be remembered properly.  He deserves more but it’s too late for that now.”  This was a new direction because Hughes usually looked outwards rather than inwards but It was also too late because, without adding anything more, Hughes died in August 2012. 

 Disappointingly The Spectacle of Skill  does not give any information about the Memoir such as when the chapters were written which would enable the reader to know how long the Danton requiem was written before Hughes’s death.

 Other chapters of The Memoir concern Hughes both setting up a loft in New York as his home and a holiday home on Long Island.   He is perceptive about graft in the art world and the vulnerability of media ‘ sodden with on hype’: there is a low- down on his 30 years on Time as well as a  hilarious account of the disastrous launch of a US national news program, rather like 60 Minutes, for which he was anchorman.   He was sacked immediately, much to his relief because it freed him to do the eight episodes of the BBC TV Shock of the New series.  Because of a shrewd contract, the one appearance on the US program  brought him $US 100,000 whereas the eight BBC programs brought him only $US 24,000 but also worldwide fame and were the basis for a successful book.   Seeing Hughes smashing renowned figures on TV, some said success had made him arrogant but even as 23 year old he had been generous with  generalisations and judgements.

 In his introduction, Adam Gopnik refers only to Hughes’s Anglo background without mentioning the time he spent in Italy, or Alan Moorehead’s influence.  Moorehead had left Melbourne believing the centre of the world was Europe but, after becoming a famous war correspondent and later imbibing the influence of the art critic  Bernard Berenson in Florence, he found his best subjects outside Europe.  Moorehead had advised Hughes to get out of Australia but, by the time Hughes joined him at his Tuscan home, he suggested the young man write a book about Australia’s convict origins and even inspired a title The Fatal Shore,based on his own best sellerThe Fatal Impact.

 Hughes wrote that his visits, while staying with Moorehead, to Italian churches, museums and landscapes was his contact with transcendence, then he had what he called the ‘life-changing’ experience of the flooding of Florence in November 1966 which wrecked many Renaissance works of art.  It turned him against those modernists who despised past art which strengthened his tendency to become a cultural critic  and influenced his attitude to America but Gopnik does not mention it. 

 Pithily he calls Hughes “a judgmental Roundhead with a gusto-filled Cavalier style”: in his vigorous and vivid prose, Hughes drubbed the pretentious and vapid such as the artists Jonathan Schnabel (“his growth was smothered by his impregnable self-esteem”) and Andy Warhol ( “an absence conspicuous by its presence”).  He was a fan as well as a friend of Robert Rauschenberg but does go far into a personal portrait in a Memoir chapter before veering away into an art discussion.  He was less interested in people than in process, how things happen, how they are made, including the woodwork he specialized in after being smashed to pieces in a car accident in Western Australia in May 1999 and then being mauled by  the Australian press.   In the Memoir, he does not whinge but mentions that subsequently he had difficulty standing and could no longer walk the distance needed to see some art exhibitions.  His restraint makes the sadness more poignant and increases the regret for his death at the age of 74. 


 The Spectacle of Skill
 Selected Writings of Robert Hughes
 Knopf.  667 pages. $40 in the USA