Patricia Maunder August 07, 2012
Eloquent criticism ... Robert Hughes's fame was only enhanced by his colourful attack. Photo: Robert Pearce
Despite lacking a tertiary degree, Robert Hughes - who passed away in New York overnight after a long battle with illness - was one of the world's most admired art critics, particularly during the 20th century's last decades.
As former Meanjin editor Ian Britain wrote in 1997, “there is probably no other art critic in his generation … who combines such resources of erudition, wit, fluency and panache.”
Hughes was also among the most controversial intellectuals of recent times. His eloquent criticism raised the ire of artists and, sometimes, the nation of his birth, from which he departed in 1964. If Hughes “sometimes behaves as if his own country has failed him,” University of Sydney friend Clive James wrote in 2007, “we should give him a break and not put it down to snobbery. Sooner or later a man as smart as that will end up believing that the whole world has failed him.”
Robert Studley Forest Hughes was born in Sydney on July 28, 1938 into a prominent family of lawyers and politicians. His paternal grandfather, Sir Thomas Hughes, was the city's first Lord Mayor, while his solicitor father, Geoffrey, was a World War I pilot who had reputedly fought the Red Baron.
Geoffrey also met his English wife, Margaret Vidal, during the war. They raised four children in their Rose Bay home: Thomas (born in 1924, he became Attorney General in John Gorton's government, then a leading QC; former Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull is his daughter), Constance (1926), Geoffrey (1928) and Robert. His father's death was a serious blow for 12-year-old Robert.
Although the clan's wealth had been significantly reduced by Sir Thomas's largesse toward the Catholic church, Robert had a privileged childhood. He attended St Ignatius College, Riverview, where his facility with words coalesced as debating society captain. He also preached at Speakers' Corner, part of an unsuccessful effort to revive his fading Catholic faith through intellectual engagement. He was virtually an atheist by the time he graduated in 1955, topping the state in English, and placed fifth overall.
Sudden exposure to personal freedom and females resulted in Hughes failing first year arts/law at the University of Sydney, then meandering part way through an architecture degree. Fellow student Bruce Beresford later described him as “impossibly handsome, and loved by all the women”. One of his steadiest university-era girlfriends was actor Noeline Brown.
Freedom did not mean idleness, however, as Hughes embraced the creative milieu on and, increasingly, off-campus. As well as being involved with the student newspaper and theatre, he also sold his paintings in Sydney's galleries, and wrote and drew cartoons for publications including the Sunday Mirror and Observer, where he suddenly became art critic by default when the editor sacked the incumbent.
As Hughes later observed, “Australia in 1958 was the only place in the world where someone as ignorant as I could have conducted his basic art training in public without being laughed off stage.”
The prodigy quickly absorbed everything he could about art and the art of criticism, and was soon writing books including the ambitious Art of Australia. However, “by the early 1960s I could no longer conceal my worst inadequacies from myself. I was … eating my patch bare,” he wrote in his 2006 memoir, Things I Didn't Know.
After his mother's death in 1963, Hughes moved to Europe, where he absorbed centuries of art previously only glimpsed in reproductions, then picked up work with publications such as the Sunday Times and BBC TV.
In 1967 he married another Sydney expat in London, Danne Emerson, with whom he had his only child, Danton Hughes, the same year. Hughes indulged in the era's taste for drugs and free love, but later described Danne as “a flying test-bed for every fad that existed in the 60s.” He also claimed that one of her many liaisons - with Jimmy Hendrix no less - led to him contracting gonorrhea.
Their relationship soon broke down, though was not finally dissolved until 1981, when he married California housewife Victoria Whistler. This marriage also ended in divorce - at great financial cost to Hughes - then in 2003 he married artist Doris Downes, “the only woman who's made me completely happy.”
In 1970, New York became Hughes's permanent base when he was appointed Time's art critic - thanks to the magazine's perseverance. Demoralised by his first wife's abandonment, dodging debt collectors and without a phone, Hughes had been hard to find in London. Time finally connected via his neighbour's phone, but drug-induced paranoia led Hughes to shout abuse then hang up, thinking it was the CIA calling about his participation in Vietnam War protests.
Hughes quickly established himself in the United States, and further developed his international reputation, particularly through the acclaimed television series and companion books The Shock of the New and American Visions. His book about England's colonisation of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1987), was another major success.
Hughes's fame was only enhanced by his colourful attacks, such as this assessment of Francis Bacon: “Some art is wallpaper. Bacon's is flypaper”. His virulence grew in proportion with his disenchantment with postmodern art, and what he described as the “cultural gorge and puke of the early '80s”.
In 1996, his disenchantment extended beyond art as he plunged into a severe depression that required anti-depressants and psychotherapy for several years. Then, in 1999, he was involved in a horrific car crash near Broome. His injuries were nearly fatal (and continued to hamper him for the rest of his life), but it was the consequent legal proceedings that made the biggest headlines.
During what he described as a “bleary fiesta of humbug and abuse”, Hughes was presented as an arrogant snob by a hostile media – which may have concluded that his decades of criticism of Australia had gone too far with his vocal support of the Republican Movement. Ultimately, in 2003, Hughes pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm, and paid a $2500 fine.
The year before that there had been another blow when his sculptor son, the partner of fashion designer Jenny Kee, committed suicide. “My entire relationship with Danton is one that I will never cease to interrogate myself about, and that I will never cease to regret,” Hughes said in 2006.
Among Hughes's many honours were a NSW Premier's Literary Award for his memoir, 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.
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