• Email
  • Print

Golden Boy

Among my generation of aesthetes, bohemians, proto-dropouts, and incipient eternal students at Sydney University in the late 1950s, Robert Hughes was the golden boy. Still drawing and painting in those days, he wrote mainly as a sideline, but his sideline ran rings around his contemporaries, and his good looks and coruscating enthusiasm seemed heaven-sent. He still looks the part, and although his once trim and elegant body is now held together with pieces of merely semiprecious metal, his aureate initial appearance has by no means been eclipsed.

The internally worn pins and bolts were made necessary by the terrible and much-publicized 1999 car crash in Western Australia that should have written him off. Instead, he writes about it:

The car had telescoped. The driver’s seat had slammed forward, pinning me against the steering wheel, which was twisted out of shape by the impact of my body, nearly impaling me on the steering column. Much of the driver’s side of the Pulsar’s body had been ripped away, whether by the initial impact or, later, by the hydraulic tools used by the fire brigade and ambulance crew in their long struggle to free me from the wreckage. It looked like a half-car. It was as though the fat, giant foot of God from the old Monty Python graphics had stamped on it and ground it into the concrete.

The crash is the first thing that happens in his autobiography, which 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 installments, he survived to tell the story of his life.

So now we have the Owl Creek incident plus a long flashback: a new form of autobiography, typical of him in its casual boldness. It is not yet a full account of his life as the leading art critic of his generation: we’ll need another installment for that. This installment, in broadly chronological form, traces his Catholic upbringing in 1940s and 1950s Sydney, through his university years, to his early career as a freelance journalist and critic in Europe. The book concludes with his departure for America in 1970, where he would spend a thirty-year career as Time magazine’s chief art critic, and where he continues to live today. Mainly because the most thrilling part of his personal odyssey is largely left out, I would place this book only among the second rank of Hughes’s achievements as a writer, but that still puts it in the first rank of almost anybody else’s. The quality of his prose would raise him that high anyway, but there is more than enough hard-bitten reflection and generous regret to make the book unusual for its scope. If only, instead of just sketching it, he’d put in the full story of his developing response to art, he might have written a masterpiece. But perhaps he figured that we could deduce all that from his rack of critical works.

Well, so we can, but that’s exactly why we would have liked to hear a more detailed account of his early critical development right here and now. The unstoppably voluble Hughes might seem an unlikely candidate for shyness. But he has been a bit shy about his own gifts, as if he wanted, when it came to questions of the mind, to forgo the heroics. About his first book, for example, his pioneering 1966 survey of Australian art, he writes:

The Art of Australia was not a difficult book to write. In fact, it almost wrote itself, because I wrote it journalistically, unencumbered by theory—which would have been impossible if I had embarked on it ten years later—and picking up the research, ad hoc, as it moved along. Today I would certainly not recommend it as a model to young art writers (not that I ever felt tempted to), but at least it made up to some degree in verve and directness of feeling for what it lacked in depth of theoretical understanding.

About what he was given, Hughes either feels he must be modest or else he still doesn’t realize just how gifted he was. The second possibility, I think, is more likely to be true. In Australia, class divisions, though widely believed not to exist, are certainly present to the extent that there are people who feel superior. Very few people, however, feel inferior: a pretty good measure of the prevailing egalitarianism. But Hughes and his background might have been designed to remind his less glossily reared fellow culturati that there was a privileged order.

Hughes emanated from a grand Catholic family far enough up the ladder to inhabit a large house in Rose Bay, one of Sydney’s Inner Eastern suburbs, where the people in the social pages came from. While being careful to point out that the wealth of his dynastic line was greatly diminished by the time he came into his share of the inheritance, Hughes is honest enough not to underplay his advantages. His father had been a World War I fighter pilot who later became a papal knight. Hughes was sent to school at Riverview, a scholastically distinguished and spiritually intense little Alcatraz on the harbor foreshore where Catholic boys were expected to get into training for great things. Hughes duly learned his Latin, but in emphasizing the formal structure of the system that launched him he rather downplays his inbuilt fitness for his later accomplishments.

He admits that he had a good memory, for example, but should have said that it was photographic. He admits that at university he was active as an illustrator for the student magazines and stage productions but he doesn’t say that his speed and skill left us flabbergasted. He admits that he flourished as a student journalist but soft-pedals the impression he also made on the downtown editors, who were soon publishing his work. He admits that he did all right with the girls but forgets to say—ah, this is the unforgivable malfeasance—that he cut a swathe without even trying.

Brenda, a British ballerina from the touring Royal Ballet, at least gets a mention. I remember her: she was so graceful that you went on seeing her with your eyes closed. The gorgeous Australian actress and future television star Noeline Brown gets a longer mention, as well she might. I knew Hughes well enough to see them together many times. But there was another one, called Barbara, who looked as if she spent her spare time standing in a seashell for Botticelli, and she doesn’t even get a sentence. I several times sat with her for hours while she waited for Hughes to come out of the school of architecture, where he was staving off expulsion by turning out fifty drawings in a single afternoon. Considering the number of poems I wrote for her without copping so much as a touch on the wrist, Hughes’s omission of her name defies justice. And there were plenty more.

What grates on my nerves is that he possibly thought it was natural that all these insanely lovely creatures fell into his arms. A certain unawareness of what life is like for ordinary mortals might have been detectable even then. The tendency on the part of the clever to imagine that less gifted people are being willfully obtuse can have important political consequences, which in the case of Hughes we might keep in mind.

If Hughes nowadays sometimes behaves as if his own country has failed him, 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, unless he is made to realize that a superior intellect, if its owner is bent on assessing the life of human beings in the mass, can be more of a handicap than an advantage. There are signs that Hughes has been brought nearer to this realization by his car crash—“the most extreme change in my life.”

Hughes is in no position to say how superior his intellect may be, but the Australian expatriate writer Alan Moorehead spotted Hughes’s capacities not long after the art-hungry prodigy, no longer an artist but already causing long-distance ripples as a writer about art, went into self-imposed exile abroad in 1964. I should say at this point that the much-publicized Australian Expatriate Movement gets far too much attention in Australia and is likely to be misunderstood elsewhere. In its standard form the story in the British and Australian press has mainly been written around the adventures, real and supposed, of the so-called Famous Four, comprising Hughes, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, and finally, shambling along far in the rear like Sancho Panza, myself.

Nowadays the Famous Four get a good deal of approbation in their homeland, partly because of the questionable assumption that they have done something to raise their country’s previously supine international profile, and thereby helped to create the climate in which real celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts can be appreciated in their full splendor, as fit female counterparts for the race of supermen represented by Heath Ledger and Hugh Jackman, not to mention Russell Crowe, who in Australia is written up as if he were a dinkum (i.e., genuine) Aussie unless he has recently thrown a telephone at someone, whereupon it is suddenly remembered that he was born in New Zealand.

I can remember when we were all regularly reviled for having turned our backs on our homeland. (Hughes still comes in for some of this treatment, for reasons we will get to.) But the point to grasp is that the entire story of a specific expatriate generation is an illusion, because Australia has been producing expatriates since Dame Nellie Melba, the legendary early-twentieth-century soprano at Covent Garden. There were always the theatrical people and the painters, and then, during and after World War II, came the writers, headed by the war correspondents, of whom the most prominent was Alan Moorehead. Quite apart from his famous books about the Nile, Moorehead contributed to The New Yorker and wrote a shelf of considerable volumes about Australian and world history. He was also ahead of his time in realizing that Italy was a perfectly reasonable place for an Australian writer to set up shop, because Australia, which like America had been the product of many of the world’s cultures, would inevitably produce cultural figures who were at home anywhere.

Back in Sydney, there were still a couple of generations of intellectuals on the way who would be reluctant to agree with that proposition, because they thought that Australia—eternally handicapped by its subservient connection to Britain—needed a national identity, which would be sabotaged if talented people opted out. Moorehead, who had just spent several years in a ringside seat as several different national identities tried their best to annihilate one another, knew all that was moonshine, and that Australia’s national identity depended on nothing but the quality of its culture, which was more likely to be enhanced than inhibited if its young exponents were to spend time abroad. Moorehead had been impressed by some of the young Hughes’s work, and, while visiting Sydney in 1962, urged him to pursue a writing career in Europe. Correctly assessing that Hughes was short of financial resources but was carrying the prose equivalent of what the Australian children’s radio program called the Golden Boomerang, Moorehead offered the loping vagabond his contacts and, as needed, his villa:

Alan laid it out for me. He would give me letters to his literary agent (there were none in Australia in 1962, and the very idea of having one seemed exotic); to his publisher, Hamish “Jamie” Hamilton; and to several other people who might matter in the life of a budding writer. If I hit the wall or otherwise got into trouble in London, I could treat his house in Italy as a bolt-hole, a refuge from debt collectors or wronged women. Though not, he added firmly, indefinitely. All I had to do was raise enough money to leave, and to survive on for a while.

The passages about Hughes’s creative sojourn with Moorehead would alone make this book worth the price. “I found in Alan,” says Hughes, “the kind of father I had never had.” After the bungled operation that left Moorehead with a damaged brain, Hughes pushed his master’s wheelchair. The tone softens, but the prose, as always, stays firm. There is never any question about Hughes’s ability to find a written equivalent for anything in his range of feeling. There is only a question about what he feels.

Whether he feels compassion for his late wife Danne is hard to guess. The safest answer is that he doesn’t know what to say. She was too much for him. I knew her too, back when we were all starting off in Sydney, and I had already guessed that she might be too much for anybody. She had a problem with the reality principle that would later be echoed by the second wife of Paul McCartney, still fifteen years from being born when Danne Emerson’s tower-of-power beauty was in its launch phase.

In London she was on everything and Hughes piercingly describes the consequences:

I was a weak optimist and a bad strategist, and too dumb—for which the other word is “hopeful”—to figure out how far I was being manipulated, while Danne was too lazy to even think about working or contributing anything to the actual running of the disintegrating ménage. I kept telling myself that, after a painful period of rebellion against the precepts of her upbringing, she would work it out of her system and become, if not the kind of model wife held up as an example by The Australian Women’s Weekly—that wasn’t on the cards, and I wouldn’t have expected it to be, since this was after all the sixties—then at least a reasonable and, once more, a loving one. Fat chance. Danne, in the words of Robert Crumb, had “enlisted in the army of the stoned.” She didn’t have something in her system. It was her system.

Why a man who had already had his pick of the world’s sane beauties should have teamed up with an insane beauty is a question he doesn’t put to himself here, and possibly once again the reason is modesty. Never having grasped the full measure by which he was initially blessed, he doesn’t see the irony in how he was subsequently cursed. Anyway, the long episode makes grim reading, and is climaxed by Danne’s untimely death in 2002 and the subsequent suicide of the couple’s son, occurrences noted with a lack of comment that surely only permanent and irresolvable bewilderment could make possible. It was tragic fate on a Greek scale, and his appropriately benumbed registration of these personal disasters makes it very plausible when he advances the proposition that it takes art to make life bearable.

There is a lot about art here and about his awakening to critical prose writing, and politeness demands that we should note the abundance before complaining that there might have been still more. Before Hughes left Sydney, he already had an appreciative eye for the Australian art that he would later rank and classify in The Art of Australia. One of his enthusiasms was for the reclusive genius Ian Fairweather. From an exhibition in Sydney, Hughes bought one of Fairweather’s key paintings, Monsoon:

It cost all of three hundred pounds, and I secured it by queueing all night, accompanied by Noeline and ahead of eight or ten other impassioned fans, on the steps of the gallery, with a thermos of rum-laced coffee, blankets, and a sleeping bag, in order to get first pick….

Note the excitement, which, as always with Hughes, is closely accompanied by powers of definition that can evoke even the indefinite:

It was a large abstraction, predominantly black, brown, and gray, traversed by a violent yet exquisitely harmonious net of swiftly daubed, creamy lines. It gave a sense of lightning flashes piercing tropical darkness….

You will find passages like that all through Hughes’s writings (The Fatal Shore is especially rich in verbal landscapes of gallery quality) but the thing to grasp here is that he not only felt like that when he was young, he could say it like that when he was young. He still writes with the youthful energy of discovery. The excitement and the powers of evocation were what Hughes took abroad with him, and his continuing wisdom has been to know that neither works without the other. In this book you can see them working for Duccio, Cimabue, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Goya, Bonnard, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Robert Crumb, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. Here he is, for example, on his first encounter with Matthias Grünewald at the Antonian hospital in Colmar:

I had never seen such a frightening picture before. Of course, as in Bosch, its repulsive powers were wound into the very fabric of the skill with which it was executed. But could one imagine the Isenheim Altarpiece hanging in a church or an infirmary back in Australia, where art never spoke of real pain, let alone grotesque sickness or deformity? Would there be any public place for it in America, or anywhere else in the modern world? It was only then, gazing on Grünewald’s enormous and deliberately wrought masterpiece, that I realized how deep the roots of euphemism and evasion were sunk in modern life; how alien, as a result, the entire “Expressionist” tradition in modern art had been to me having grown up in Australia—and would also have been had I grown up in North America…. Almost all I knew of past art, and that imperfectly, was its Apollonian tradition, which spoke of order, idealism, satisfied Eros. Somewhere beyond and below that stretched another continent of esthetic experience which had somehow to be discovered, and it was probably true that my life had been too happy and healthy for me to really grasp it. This, too, was part of the reason I had had to leave Australia and come to Europe.

But there are not enough others, because the story of such a brilliant critic’s steadily accumulating and interacting enthusiasms, their ever-intensifying interplay of nuance, is his real autobiography. No doubt we will hear more artists’ names when we are given a second volume, but this volume might have been stronger if some of the incidental geopolitical opinion could have been shifted aside to leave room for a more thorough account of how the mind that hatches those opinions developed.

Hughes is ready to risk opprobrium by calling himself an elitist: “For of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense.” Elitists, however, even such large-minded and nonsnobby ones, are never in short supply. What you hardly find anywhere is someone who can do for art what Leonard Bernstein did for music: go on television and haul the general viewers in the direction of a new life. Hughes did it with The Shock of the New, his classic BBC television series and book (1980) about twentieth-century art.

In America the series was successful enough, but Americans would find it hard to estimate the impact that it had in Britain and Australia, where it was shown on the mainstream channels. Here was the kind of survey that the BBC used to be able to do when it still commanded the services of resident grandees like Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark (whom Hughes mentions as an influence in the early Sixties) but now it was being done by an Aussie who based himself in New York.

Hughes went to the US in response to an invitation from Time magazine. The call first came by telephone, when he was immured in his London flat, surrounded by the ruins of his marriage, and so stoned that he thought the CIA was after him. But he eventually met Time‘s European editor, who invited him to come to New York to try out for a few weeks. Hughes was a new breed: a breed without a readily traceable bloodline. His background invisible in the far distance, he exemplified the biggest advantage the new wave of Aussie expatriates had: they inhabited the cultural world as if they had been born in it, and nowhere else. Culture was their country.

Hughes could have done a whole chapter about how he got The Shock of the New off the ground. Instead, he gives it a paragraph or two, and wastes a whole line recording (correctly, alas) my advice that television would erode his reputation for seriousness. It ranks high among the least pertinent things I have ever said, because Hughes’s true seriousness is based on exactly that: his ability to transmit the highest level of aesthetic enjoyment through the popular media, one of which, of course, is the best seller. This book will probably do all right anyway, but it might have done even better if a whole generation who were already grateful to him felt inspired to cram a copy into the hands of their children, saying: here, if you have to go crazy, don’t go crazy about Eminem. Go crazy the way this guy did—go crazy about Cimabue.

Hughes did go crazy about Cimabue, before Florence was flooded in 1966, and he went crazier still after the raging waters had done their work. He tells the story of Father Gustavo Cocci, the priest of Santa Croce, who tried, in an inflatable rubber dinghy, to preserve the pigment from the great Cimabue crucifix in the Museo dell’Opere di Santa Croce, which had become submerged by the floodwaters:

Father Cocci, as he later told journalists, was perfectly ignorant of picture conservation, but he did know that, whatever the chances of restoring the crucifix to some semblance of its former self might be, they would be much less if this stuff were lost. So he swiveled his duck around, trying not to disturb the water, and paddled back to the church. Then he made his way back to the sports store where, sure enough, he found the tool he needed: a net for catching insects, on a long wooden handle. Armed with this Nabokovian instrument, and by now joined by a pair of restorers, he managed over the next several hours to rescue quite a lot of Cimabue’s peeling gesso, carefully depositing it—for want of any better surface—on a large, dirty china plate.

Shortly after, however, the exhausted priest withdrew for a nap, and another rescue crew decided to break for lunch at the museum:

One of the men had a hefty salami and a knife. And there was a lone plate sitting on a lone chair in the museum. It had what appeared to be lumps of colored mud on it. But nobody was in a mood to be picky, and these were easily wiped off. When Father Cocci woke up and heard this story he was said to have laughed, and then wept, uncontrollably.

The episode is one of the best bits in a book of best bits. But the bits are a bit like the flecks of paint: they belong on a larger canvas.

There would have been more room for art if there was less about politics. A more awkward truth is that the stuff about politics could have been more worthy of that superior brain we have been talking about. At the inquest following his crash, Hughes got into trouble with the Australian press by suggesting audibly that the proceedings were a circus. Suggesting things audibly is one of Hughes’s most endearing characteristics. When young he never had much idea of adjusting his discourse to the audience, and he still hasn’t. But his disinclination to censor himself means that he can easily talk himself into trouble.

What he didn’t seem to realize, when the car crash case was being heard out there in the sticks of Western Australia, was that the national press was already laying for him. Hughes favored (still favors) an Australian republic, and had several times flown the Pacific to speak against the lingering ties with Britain that he holds to be obsolete. All but a few of Australia’s intellectuals are republican like him, but they didn’t necessarily think he was doing their cause a favor. In the referendum of 1999 the republicans failed to get their way. Some said it was because of the manner in which the question was framed, but there were others who thought that a glittering few of the more prominent republican advocates had been counterproductive in their advocacy, simply because of their “silvertail” (i.e., privileged) background.

More scintillating than any of these had been Hughes. He would have a right to laugh at the imputation of privilege—there was so little money left in the family that his mother had to start a ski lodge business from scratch—but there is this much to it: he doesn’t necessarily sense the Australian electorate’s reluctance to countenance any measure that might divert power toward an oligarchy. The question of which interests would be favored by a republic popped up quite early in the argument, and even many of the members of the intelligentsia who were convinced that the coming of the republic was historically inevitable were still ready to question the credentials of expatriates who seemed to them too eager to scramble aboard the bandwagon.

Almost anybody with a university degree in Australia was, and is, ready to call the common people a bunch of racists for electing as prime minister the Liberal (i.e., conservative) John Howard. The contempt of the commentariat for a good half of the electorate is one of the wonders of modern Australia. (At this point, Americans might need to be reminded that in Australia voting is compulsory, so half the electorate means half of all the adults alive.) In theory, the republicans should have agreed with Hughes when he treated the rest of the Australian population as wrongheaded on the subject of the republic. But many preferred to think that the visiting fireman was patronizing everybody, themselves included.

This opinion of him was reinforced after the accident that turned him into Evel Knievel, when the members of the press—never helpful to a celebrity on trial—gave him their standard bucketing and he reacted as if they were out to get him. Undoubtedly some of them were, but in Australia it would be wise for even Shakespeare to have a fraternal drink with the Fourth Estate. Suddenly feeling the warmth drain out of his welcome, Hughes gathered himself up on his crutches, shook the dust of his homeland slowly from his shoes, and headed off to light up the metal detector at Sydney airport. In the book, he considers saying a defiant goodbye to the land of his birth:

By the time this bleary fiesta of humbug and abuse, with all its fabrication of quotes, had run its course, I had indeed lost the rather innocent and nostalgic love of Australia that I had retained for nearly forty years, ever since I left for Europe. I had never for a moment contemplated changing my citizenship. Now I was reluctantly thinking about it.

He spends a lot of time saying what his country never had, and still hasn’t got. Actually it’s got it, because it’s got Hughes. He should give his country a little more credit, if only because it still gives so much credit to him.

Hughes is the Bastard from the Bush dressed up as the Wandering Scholar. Thousands of bright young Aussies will want to be him, in the same way that thousands of slightly less bright Aussies want to be the cricketer Shane Warne. Hughes, as the Australians say, is quids in. All he has to remember is that his nation has got some credit coming for helping to form the best part of his brain, the part that wants to share any discovered joy. One doesn’t ask him to praise his homeland: just to be fair will do. And, from all reports, the Australians made a point of being fair to him this autumn, and gave him and his book a big welcome when he returned. The Japanese say it every day: I go and I come back.

  • Email
  • Print