Robert Hughes: the Aussie who crashed through art's barriers

Aug 7, 2012
Martha Richler

If he hadn't left home, would he have become one of the greatest writers on art since Baudelaire?

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ROBERT HUGHES was more than an art critic. He was a writer who changed the way we think and talk about art. He threw a stick of verbal dynamite into the fusty-minded, jargon-ridden art world.

He was working as the cartoonist on the Sydney Observer in the 1950s when he was hijacked to the arts pages by the editor, Donald Horne, who having just sacked the art critic told Hughes, "You're the cartoonist. You ought to know something about art."

By the 1970s, he was New York's resident art critic, writing for Time Magazine and The New Yorker. His hugely popular 1980 television series The Shock of the New and his repeated blasts against the inflated contemporary art market won him the accolade the world's greatest art critic. But he was really an art historian - the academic world was just too jealous of his great writing and tremendous sales to give him this title.

He was as much at ease speaking about the Old Masters as he was in his tribute to the scandalous underground cartoonist, Robert Crumb, in the 1994 documentary, Crumb, with the knowledge and conviction of a critic who has at least tried to draw.

His first book, The Art of Australia, is still a classic. His monographs on Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach are unmissable reading for anyone interested in 20th-century British art. He wrote histories of entire cities – Rome, Barcelona. Never dry or pedantic, he shared with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal a sense of dramatic story-telling and the ability to bring history to life. Perhaps his greatest history was about his own native country, The Fatal Shore, an impassioned, heavily researched account of the transport of convicts to Australia.

As an older man, he was more vulnerable to criticism, especially the accusation by Australian nationalists that somehow, like Clive James, he had abandoned his native country. And yet in his memoir, Things I Didn't Know, it was clear that Australia in the 1970s simply could not give him the cosmopolitan life he thirsted for – and without leaving home he would not have become one of the greatest writers the art world has seen since Baudelaire.

In one of his most notorious outbursts, he lashed out at the outlandish prices paid for Damien Hirst's work in 2008 – a year now associated with Britain's economic collapse. Hughes had nothing but comtempt for Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, and felt it only represented a dangerously inflated market. He was preoccupied with the confusion over high prices and artistic value which he felt riddled the art market.

He branded Hirst's shark in formaldehyde "the world's most over-rated marine organism", arguing that Hirst was not an artist but "a commercial brand". Perversely, Hirst has become the darling of hedge fund managers, and Hirst himself famously bought back several works to maintain their market value. It remains to be seen whether his work will become the art market equivalent of junk bonds.

As Hughes grew older, he turned his attention to the life and history of Goya's art, perhaps identifying with the Spaniard's dark outlook, even despair, since his own near-fatal road accident, which he recounts in terrifying detail in the opening of Things I Didn't Know.

Hughes had a great sense of theatre, and used television to declare his opinions on Goya while hobbling on a stick – morphing into one of Goya's 'cripples', and speaking with a visionary passion that went beyond the usual 'art tour' approach of proper middle-class English tradition.

There was something symbolic about the fact that he almost died driving on the wrong side of the road in Australia, causing a head-on collision: he was the ultimate intellectual renegade.

That car crash took on epic proportions, a fact Clive James embraced with typical poetic gusto in his review of Hughes's memoir, which today reads as the ultimate tribute to Hughes's indomitable spirit, from one great writer to another: "...The celebrated 1999 car-crash in Western Australia", Clive James writes, "should have written him off. Instead, he writes about it.

"Evoked with characteristic vividness, the car-crash is the first thing that happens in this autobiography, which thus shares the form of the Ambrose Bierce story about the incident at Owl Creek, whereby the hanged man, after the rope snaps, goes on to be the hero of an escape saga.

"At the end, we find out that the rope didn't snap at all. But Hughes's rope did. Though he was so badly smashed up that by rights he should have been buried in several instalments, he survived to tell the story of his life."

  • Martha Richler is a cartoonist and art historian

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