After learning of the death of Robert Hughes earlier this month, I thought I might read his memoir, published in 2007, Things I Didn’t Know. It features some great writing – notably the opening chapter, plus sections on his time in London in the sixties, and the floods in Florence in 1966. But, I must admit that I found the book a mixed experience. Hughes expresses opinions in forthright terms as you’d expect, but whereas in his books on art this is invigorating, here it seems to be more about settling scores with old enemies, and too much of it becomes tiresome. There was less about art than I expected (though still plenty), and rather more about his personal life than I wanted to know: some passages leaving me with a distinctly queasy sensation.
The opening chapter is a tour de force: a variation on the equally brilliant first chapter of Goya, the first book he wrote after the car crash in Western Australia in May 1999 that left him, on the eve of his 61st birthday, splintered and shattered and close to death. In the earlier book, he told how after the accident, hospitalized and in a coma, he saw a vision of Goya, the terrifying artist of pain whose work Hughes had loved for as long he had looked at art. On the long road of recovery that followed, Hughes finally completed the study of Goya that he had intended to write for a very long time.
Now, in Things I Didn’t Know, the ‘most extreme change in my life’, leads Hughes’ thoughts in a different direction. Apart from being a vivid and visceral account of the crash and its aftermath, the opening chapter evolves into the beginning of a meditation (though, this being Hughes, it’s a highly rambunctious and muscular meditation) on his feelings about his home country and his sense of Australianness. These musings run like a thread through the rest of the book.
It’s what happened after the accident that causes Hughes to reflect on the loss of an ‘innocent and rather nostalgic love of Australia that I had retained for nearly forty years, ever since I left for Europe’. Hughes was prosecuted for dangerous driving because he was driving on the wrong side of the road. But the three men in the other vehicle had criminal records, were on drugs and later tried to blackmail him. The case was dismissed. But, after the trial, Hughes called the men ‘low-life scum’, accused the the public prosecutor of pursuing the case against him solely to advance his political career, and, according to a local reporter, topped it off by referring to the prosecution lawyer (descended from Indian migrants) as a ‘curry muncher’ (an accusation Hughes vehemently denied). The prosecutors were not happy, decided to sue for defamation, and won.
As far as Hughes was concerned, he was being punished by the press (or ‘the Meejah’ as Hughes insists on calling it throughout the book) for being ‘a fucking elitist cunt’. The Australian press was seized by ‘a fiesta of humbug and abuse’ in which Hughes, ‘the tall poppy’, was cut down – because he was an elitist and, moreover, one who had left Australia.
‘Of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense’, asserts Hughes in characteristically combative style:
I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill … I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. … Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.
So begins a memoir in which Hughes’ prime objective is to explore the extent to which his Australianness is the most important thing about him, or only one attribute in an evolving life. He begins with his elite origins, the grandson of the first lord mayor of Sydney, and the son of a successful lawyer and war hero. His older brother was a lawyer who went on to be Attorney-General. Growing up in the Sydney of the 1940s and 1950s the young Hughes did not ‘talk Australian’ and was singled out as a ‘pom’ by bullies at the tough Jesuit boarding school he attended. Coming to terms with the strict Catholicism and conservatism of his upbringing is another theme that recurs throughout the book.
I must admit that I almost abandoned the book at some point in the second or third chapter, finding Hughes’ detailed account of his family’s history and his childhood days in school and secluded Sydney suburb less than gripping. For me, the narrative doesn’t really regain energy until, rejecting the family tradition of going in for the law, he goes to university to study arts and then architecture.
There are compensations, though: we learn how, through various accidental or fortuitous encounters, Hughes manages to escape the restrictions of upper crust 1950s Sydney to develop an interest in art and culture. Most memorable, and counter-intuitive, is his homage to Father Wallace, one of his teachers at the Jesuit College, who encouraged him to read, lending him quite a few scandalous books that were forbidden in Catholic circles, including a James Joyce anthology containing Molly Bloom’s monologue from Ulysses. Stupidly, Hughes leaves the book where it is later discovered, with the result that he is summoned to the headmaster’s study where he has some difficulty convincing the head that he had been lent the book by Father Wallace.
Hughes claims he’s ‘never been much of a joiner’ and didn’t have much to do with the Sydney ‘Push’ – the group of artists, writers and libertarians that included luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Clive James who were eventually to light up the radical sixties in Britain. But Hughes does begin to make artistic connections and soon abandons his studies to become first a cartoonist and then, fortuitously, art critic for the Sydney periodical The Observer, modelled on London’s Spectator.
There are some lengthy digressions at this point on the conservative backwater that Australian art represented in the fifties, a place where it was extremely difficult for an aspiring art critic to gain an informed understanding of the terrain. Art in Australia was only just waking up after decades of cultural quarantine:
It had taken Australian culture that long to pay for the conservatism and xenophobia of the men who installed themselves as its cultural directors after 1910. The museums contained the most obvious and eloquent record of their narrow-mindedness, which even extended to ‘traditional” European art: the list of medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, rococo, Romantic, and nineteenth century realist artists in its public collections was …extremely short. Australia had not just missed the boat; it hadn’t even bestirred itself to buy a ticket. [...] And if its museums had largely missed out on old art, they were almost parodically hostile to the new. They could tolerate Impressionism, but only just, and they had ignored the opportunity to buy Monet, Manet, Degas, or even Renoir. Everything from Fauvism on was dismissed as the vulgar effusion of incompetent and presumably Jewish madmen.
So, ‘conscious of an inferiority’ (though already the author of The Art of Australia, the first serious survey of its subject), in 1963 Hughes left Sydney and headed for Europe, encouraged by his mentor, the popular historian Alan Moorehead. Encouraged and helped by Moorehead, Hughes settles for a time in Italy, firing off the odd bit of freelance writing , gaining some formative art experience – and shagging a fair few women. In the 16th century garden of Bomarzo, Hughes smokes pot and knocks back cheap white wine with a ‘newly acquired American girlfriend’ before having sex on the stone banqueting table inside a grotto with a monstrous mouth as its entrance, the so-called Bocca d’Inferno. The gardens have, he laments without a jot of irony, since been ruined by an excess of dumb tourists.
More sex follows after Moorehead urges him to get his act together and he moves to London, where he arrives just in time to encounter some of the prime movers of the sixties underground scene, such as fellow-Aussies Richard Neville and Felix Dennis, founders of Oz magazine. Hughes, though, has little time for hippies, and in just one of many diatribes in an entertaining chapter, indulges in a bizarre rant against the hippie ethos that begins reasonably enough, but ends off the wall. ‘It rested on confession, self-revelation and self-expression without set limits or inhibitions, and one of its principle sources was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, Hughes opines, tracing a chain from Rousseau, via Coleridge, Byron and Keats, to – Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Come again?
The individual preceded the State. In any society there must be room for the unbridled individual, the eccentric, the rebel, the visionary, and even (perhaps especially) the lunatic, since all of them were capable of touching truths that more ‘ordered’ people felt bound to repress, not only in themselves but in others. And as individuality discovered its inner space and its freedom, so the world would experience moral renewal. What a dead end this Romantic fallacy, this unbridled truth of the self, proved to be! It took the 20th century, with its limitless cruelty, its mad fantasies of social ‘reorganization’, its deadly orthodoxies, and the limitless egoism of its rulers, to show what atrocious harm the idea of unrestrained personal expressiveness, in the hands of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Pol Pot, could do to hundreds of millions of ordinary people.
I have read and re-read that passage, and I still can’t understand how Hughes gets from Keats to Pol Pot. Nor do I understand how Hughes, who, from the evidence of his memoir has pursued the ‘unbridled truth of the self’ in a pretty determined manner, can believe this stuff. And surely the artists whom he most admires are the unbridled individuals, the eccentrics, the rebels, the visionaries, often rejected or despised in their time?
This outburst comes in a chapter on London in the sixties which is both entertaining for Hughes’ usually disparaging thumbnail portraits of leading lights of the underground (Timothy Leary was ‘a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest’; Jerry Rubin ‘a semi-educated liar with invincible self-esteem, the attention span of a flea, and a disgustingly inflated ego to match’) and disturbing for his account of the disaster of his first marriage to a woman he portrays as emotionally out of control and self-obsessed, who apparently slept with just about every counterculture icon in London at the time. She was so promiscuous that Hughes believes that Eldridge Cleaver was one of the ‘few male radical celebs with whom, in 1968 and ’69, she had not had sex’. The role call included Jimi Hendrix, from whom as a consequence Hughes acquired a case of the clap. ‘I was a cuckold going cuckoo’, he laments, describing at one point how he comforted his wife after her return to their home and young child from one of her regular debauches. Stroking her hair, he encountered ‘a crusty patch of some stranger’s dried semen’.
By this time Hughes was working for the new BBC 2 TV channel, and when Florence suffered the worst flood in the city’s history since 1557, he persuaded the BBC2 bosses to let him go there with a skeleton crew to film the disaster. His account of what he saw when they reached the deluged city is vivid, and one of the best passages in the book. Amidst the human and cultural disaster, Hughes tells a story of deep, dark humour. Wading through the floodwaters, Father Cocci, the parish priest of the church of Santa Croce, managed to reach the church’s adjacent Museum which housed one of the great works of Italian art history, the painted crucifix by Cimabue. He found that the water had dissolved the bond between Cimabue’s gesso foundation and the wood beneath. Father Cocci managed over several hours to rescue quite a lot of the peeling gesso, carefully depositing it on a large china plate, as an aid to restoration. Leaving the plate on a chair, the exhausted priest went off in search of a change of clothes and a rest. Workmen came in to help clean up, and, taking a break and looking for something to eat his lunch on, one of the men saw the plate, with what appeared to be lumps of coloured mud on it, and wiped it clean.
[Robert Hughes doesn't recount the rest of the story: it took a team of restorers ten years to reapply the paint in an almost pointillist manner with the aid of computer modelling. The restorers succeeded in returning the work close to its original appearance, and it was put back on public display in 1976. According to critic Waldemar Januszczak it has now become 'part original artwork, part masterpiece of modern science...a thirteenth century - twentieth century hybrid'.]
At around this time Hughes accepted a commission to write a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, a project that proved to be, in his own words, foolish and unwise. In another very interesting passage, over several pages, he explains why he couldn’t finish the book. Hughes was fascinated and puzzled by the fame which the Mona Lisa acquired only from the 19th century, but the artist himself proved to be beyond his grasp. Moreover, the more Hughes learned about him, the more Leonardo seemed to lack any sympathetic qualities as a human being. Hughes writes:
By now, I realized that my main impulse for writing a book was to force myself to find out things I didn’t know. It has always been like that; the reason for this memoir is the same, to excavate and bring into the light things I had forgotten or repressed…
I suppose the greatest disappointment of this book is that it concludes with Hughes’ departure for America in 1970, having been offered the post of art critic on Time magazine. So, the period of his greatest achievements lies beyond its scope – perhaps intended for a second volume that will now never appear.
A word about the image at the head of this post. Bill Leak started work on this portrait of Hughes in 1999, as Hughes began filming his television series on Australia, Beyond the Fatal Shore. Hughes had filmed only two scenes when he suffered the near-fatal car accident. The series was cobbled together during his agonising convalescence, and the accident led to a protracted legal process. His second marriage broke down, and his only son died. The effect of these experiences on his friend led Leak to abandon his earlier, more detailed portrait for this one, inspired by the terrifying late work of Goya, conveying Hughes’s furious pain, despair and determination in the years after 1999.
- Not the book of revelations: critical review by Peter Conrad (The Guardian)
- Golden Boy: review by Clive James
- Elitist snob, doyen of art critics: review by Martin Gayford (Telegraph)
- Aussie Brawler: review by Geoff Dyer (New York Times)