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Golden Boy

Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes; drawing by David Levine

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…

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