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Robert Hughes: reflections on a passionate critic

Art critic Robert Hughes passed away overnight after a long illness. He was 74. His wife Doris Hughes said in a statement…

Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who was considered to be one of most influential art critics in the world, posed for photographers on a visit to Spain in 2007. AAP

Art critic Robert Hughes passed away overnight after a long illness. He was 74.

His wife Doris Hughes said in a statement that he passed away peacefully at 3.40pm (5.40am AEST) in New York, with her by his side.

Doris Hughes said her husband would be greatly missed by his family in Australia including his brothers Tom Hughes AO QC and Geoffrey Hughes, his sister Constance Crisp and his niece Lucy Hughes Turnbull AO and her husband Malcolm Turnbull.

Robert Hughes received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism in 1982 and 1985, given by the College Art Association of America, and in 1991 was named an Officer of the Order of Australia.

His book about white settlement of Australia, The Fatal Shore, received the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 1988.

The Conversation has collected some reflections by academics on the legacy of Robert Hughes.

Power Professor Mark Ledbury, Chair of the Art History and Film Studies Department, and Director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney.

Robert Hughes’ unique voice, both strident and mellifluous, will live long in the memory – even for those of us not fortunate enough to know him personally.

Hughes was a great media art historian - as a teenager, I watched enthralled at The Shock of the New, a landmark program in the great traditions of television art history - and that passion and precision was in evidence still many years later as he began his American Visions looking out over New York City, in almost conscious imitation of Kenneth Clark opening “Civilization” on the banks of the Seine.

Art History has, in the past fifty years, reached its public through television as much as through the exhibition or the lecture room, and Hughes was one of the undoubted pioneers and masters of the genre.

But Hughes was a great art writer, too. His Fatal Shore was a landmark book, in its brave and brilliant analysis of the patterns of convict existence and the hardships of early settler life. His skills as eloquent chronicler of place were equally on show in his lovely book on Barcelona in 1992.

Hughes was of course trenchant in his views, and some (contemporary) artists suffered the fury of his pen. I prefer to remember his thoughtful studies of challenging contemporary artists like Donald Friend, or Lucien Freud, or especially Robert Crumb. Hughes was passionately committed to the fact that art mattered, that it captured and transmitted something deep about human experience, and his advocacy and judgement, as well as his passion and his humour, will be sorely missed.

John Hirst, Emeritus Scholar in the School of Historical and European Studies at La Trobe University.

As a historian I think his work The Fatal Shore will go on having an influence for a very long time, depicting convict Australia as a hell hole is a very strong image.

The British like it because it reinforces their view that we are a people of low origin. Australians like it too in an odd way I think, because it feeds into their view that the British did horrible things to Australians and we are a better people than the British - we wouldn’t have done what they did.

I’ve spent a lot of time quarrelling with Robert Hughes’ view of convict Australia which I think was a lot closer to being a normal society than he allowed. Of course flogging and hanging were normal in British society and at the time of convict Australia, so if you judge by modern terms it seems a very cruel place, by the standards of the day it wasn’t so very different and any convict who had a skill and/or a willingness to work could do quite well in convict Australia.

And it is interesting that Hughes himself, towards the end of The Fatal Shore and even in the introduction, realised that perhaps he’d given a false impression and he says that the arrangement of assigning convicts to private masters and letting them work and transfer from that gradually in to society at large was probably a better punishment than anything else.

As he looked at the system in detail I think he began to correct himself, but he couldn’t set aside the image of hell hole and Gulag and of course from his pen he could depict the horrors in such a chilling way that they remain in the mind.

I met him once at a Republican meeting where he spoke alongside Malcolm Turnbull, and he spoke warmly to me and did not take me apart for criticising his views of convict Australia.

Robert Nelson, Associate Director of Student Experience at Monash University.

Thanks to Robert Hughes an awful lot of people take an interest in art history, visual phenomena, contemporary art and architecture.

That’s a huge achievement, but the fact that he did it with such mellifluous writing expressed just how much the subject matter itself is inspiring.

He could probably write with the same grace about a mouldy cabbage, but he didn’t; he wrote about the most rewarding things in his grand panorama; and you feel once he’s finished and the song has ended that that thing that he’s written about will reward a lifetime’s attention.

I think also in a way he added to the mystique of his subject matter because he brought to it this leonine presence, part of which is style, but part of it is an extraordinary imaginative confidence to link ideas with scintillating connexions.

Anthony White, Senior Lecturer and Research Coordinator in Art History at the University of Melbourne.

The passing of Robert Hughes is a sad moment for all of us, and in particular for art-interested people born in Australia between the 1950s and the 1970s.

For that generation he represented what it was possible to be, as an Australian, in the international art world. He was such a ground-breaking figure and moved so effortlessly between countries and between media and did it with such aplomb and intelligence.

When I was a younger, aspiring art historian I thought it would be impossible to outdo him. Later I came to realise that he had his limitations and flaws as a writer and thinker, but that never diminished my sense of his dazzling, iconoclastic brilliance.

The sheer scale of his many writing and media projects matched the scale of his personality; he was a towering figure among art historians and critics. I want to celebrate his achievement at this time and thank him posthumously for providing such a shining example.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    You couldn't have a better introduction to art history than Hughes' 'Shock of the New'. Combine that with Bernard Smith's 'European Vision and the South Pacific' and Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' and you never look at art again through the same eyes. Pretty good going for an Aussie intellectual on a global stage.

  2. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    dear editor
    if any of your readers are interested, robert hughes 'the shock of the new' is available free & unabridged at ubuweb:-
    [use "right-click -- save link as..." to file away for viewing later]
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

  3. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Yes, I can see that continental and North American art historians might adore the man, but as a well established writer of Australian social historiography I prefer that Hughes 'Fatal Shore' had never been published, much less penetrated the public consciousness, not on the basis of accuracy because there's little of that, but because of his standing and personality.

    There is far too much of this self-conscious Antipodean self-aggrandising trying to impress the English, the Americans and the Europeans…

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    1. Brian Deacon


      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Oh Mr Hardwick, you certainly are full of the milk of human kindness! Have you not heard the adage about not speaking ill of the dead? As far as The Fatal Shore is concerned, the book deals exclusively with the fate of convicts transported to Australia. It is not concerned with the Austalian standard of living once transportation had ended. Hughes' book is an unequalled exposition of the brutality visited upon the poor souls sent to Australia for crimes as trivial as stealing a loaf of bread. Most transportees were never able to return to England, and a sentence of transportation meant saying goodbye to one's loved ones forever. It behoves us all to learn the truth about our history, however uncomfotable that truth may make us feel.

  4. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Gil mistakes the kind of assessments owed to Hughes as a case for immediate canonisation. As such he makes a good job of playing devil's advocate!

    Hughes himself never pretended to be anything but human and therefore more gifted and more flawed in the way that the greatest human beings invariably are.

    For instance, I cringed at Hughes's lack of temperance and decency in alluding to the Indian-born WA Public Prosecutor at the time of criminal charges being brought against Hughes relating…

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