Famed Australian art critic Robert Hughes dies

Australian art critic and writer Robert Hughes died today at 74. Photo / File
Australian art critic and writer Robert Hughes died today at 74. Photo / File

Robert Hughes was built like a brick dunny, wrote like a waspish angel and probably did more than any other critic to make high art accessible.

The Australian-born writer whom The New York Times once proclaimed the world's most famous art critic also wrote important works on Australian history and on the history and philosophy of one of his passions, fishing.

Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull, who is married to Hughes's niece Lucy, issued a statement on Tuesday morning and tweeted: "Robert Hughes, critic, historian, fisherman, has died today in New York City. Farewell my dear old mate. Rest in peace."

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, who died in New York early today at the age of 74, was born on July 28, 1938 into a family of prominent Sydney lawyers. His elder brother Tom became a Liberal federal attorney-general.

He was educated at St Ignatius' College, Riverview - Sydney's premier Jesuit school - which he left "boiling with infantile testosterone"; and Sydney University, where he studied arts and architecture, graduating in neither.

Instead he became part of the Push, the boozy, libertarian subculture that attracted many of Sydney's bright young rebels in the 1950s and '60s; and drew cartoons for The Observer, a journal edited by Donald Horne of Lucky Country fame.

Horne sacked its art critic and, desperate for a replacement, appointed Hughes because a cartoonist should know something about the subject.

"If there'd been anybody in the readership of The Observer in those days who knew anything about art, I wouldn't have lasted two seconds," Hughes said in a 2006 interview with Andrew Denton on ABC Television.

He was a quick learner and was soon writing The Art Of Australia, a comprehensive review of Australian painting from settlement to the 1960s, which is still considered an important work.

In 1964 Hughes joined the Australian diaspora that included other Push identities such as Clive James and Germaine Greer, first in Italy and then London, where he wrote for several of the posher papers as well as the satirical magazine Oz.

In 1967 he married Danne (Danne) Patricia Emerson. It was a turbulent and painful union. She was, in his later words, "a flying test-bed for every fad and fancy and philosophical folly that passed through the air of London in the 1960s".

She gobbled acid "like M&Ms" and, according to the late Christopher Hitchens, "once gave him the very pox that she had caught from (legendary American musician) Jimi Hendrix".

They had one son, Danton, named after the French revolutionary.

In 1970, Time magazine headhunted Hughes from London, apparently on the strength of his 1968 Heaven And Hell In Western Art, to be its art critic. Time, Hughes has said, wanted someone who could write about art in a way non-experts could understand without being condescending.

Hughes moved to New York, where he became a Hemingway-esque figure. A New York Times piece said: "He is a big man who has lived large, riding a motorcycle, attending New York parties with a cockatoo on his shoulder, deep-sea fishing." Hitchens told, without guaranteeing its truth, of Hughes "slugging a landed shark to death with a baseball bat".

Hughes stayed with Time for 30 years. While it provided his regular platform, he soon branched out.

The Shock Of The New, his 1980 television series and book, has been widely hailed as the most readable and provocative account of the development of modern art ever written. It established him internationally. In 2004 he created an update, The New Shock of the New, which pictured an art world swamped by money and celebrity.

American Visions (1990) was, Hughes said, a love letter to America. Erudite, witty and opinionated, the book grounds the development of American art in the nation's history, landscape and ideologies.

His interests went way beyond the United States. They included his acclaimed 2002 documentary on Goya, whom he described as the first modern artist and the last old master. He also made television films on Caravaggio, Bernini and Rubens.

Much of Hughes's pungent scorn was directed at modern artists he suspected of a sort of industrial-scale, and immensely profitable, celebrity.

The American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel was "to painting what (Sylvester) Stallone is to acting - a lurching display of oily pectorals - except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself".

The immensely successful Englishman Damien Hirst's works - which include a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde which sold for nearly seven million pounds - were absurd and tacky commodities.

Hughes returned to that shark in a speech to the Royal Academy of Art: "A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velazquez can be as radical as a shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank."

Then there was his hymn to one of his favourite cities, Barcelona; and his fishing book with the splendidly ambiguous title A Jerk On One End: Reflections Of A Mediocre Fisherman, which even non-fishers enjoy. There appears to be a link between the boy who educated his eyes watching water movement in Sydney Harbour and the future art critic.

The first volume of Hughes's memoir, Things I Didn't Know, came out in 2006.

Hughes remained an Australian citizen engaged with Australia (he was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1991), although the relationship at times was strained.

The Fatal Shore, his 1987 study of the settlement of Australia, with its emphasis on the convicts "clanking their fetters in the penumbral darkness", was successful and controversial.

In 1999, while driving towards Broome after a fishing expedition, Hughes collided with a car coming the other way. Hughes, used to driving on the right, probably strayed onto the wrong side.

Hughes was almost killed and permanently injured. The men in the other car suffered lesser injuries.

After four years of legal wrangling and much bad blood, Hughes was fined $2500 for dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm.

In the interim, he had got himself into trouble, especially with some Australian tabloids, for allegedly calling an Indian DPP lawyer a "curry-muncher" (which he denied), and two of the men in the other car low-life scum (because they allegedly tried to extort money from him).

"You can tow Australia out to sea and sink it for all I care," he raged.

This all added to Hughes's reputation as the elitist and racist bully.

He later recanted on sinking Australia. As for the rest: "I don't mind being an elitist bully, but I do mind being a racist."

Hughes actually had a clear idea of the sort of elitism he embraced. He told Denton it had nothing to do with social snobbery.

But he preferred "well-made things to badly-made things, articulate speech to mumbling. All those kind of skills and capacities add up for me to elitism. It's a preference for the best you can do or get."

For years his family life was strained.

He and Danne divorced after 14 difficult years and he married Californian Victoria Whistler. After their divorce he married American artist Doris Downes.

Shortly afterwards, in 2002, his only child Danton, then a 34-year-old sculptor living in the Blue Amanitins, committed suicide.

Danton and his father had been estranged for years. He was, Hughes said, "the big failure of my emotional life" and "you never stop blaming yourself".

Germaine Greer, the one Australian who could really match Hughes's wounding wit, has accused him of turning his back on all the most important movements in 20th-century art and of being "still in love with the figure of the great master whose sensibility is finer, sentiment more noble, hand more divinely driven than those of the rest of us lesser mortals".

Hitchens once noted that in Barcelona, Hughes described his beloved Catalonia as being, in temper, simultaneously revolutionary and conservative; then added that he might have had himself in mind.

A statement by Doris Hughes, issued on Malcolm Turnbull's website on Tuesday, said in part: "He will be greatly missed by his wife Doris Downes Hughes who was with him when he died and his family in Australia, including his brothers the Honourable Tom Hughes AO QC, Geoffrey Hughes, his sister Constance Crisp and his niece Lucy Hughes Turnbull AO and her husband the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull MP.

"He also leaves two stepsons Freeborn Garrettson Jewett IV and Fielder Douglas Jewett."

- AAP

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