Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Robert Hughes Remembers |
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Robert Hughes Remembers

Things I Didn’t Know, by Robert Hughes (Knopf, 2006)

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, as if the mischievous gods had parked a love-child on us just so they could watch the storm of envy. He still looks the part, which is a bit tough on the rest of us. Unfairly, he still has a full head of hair, and although his once trim and elegant body is now held together with pieces of merely semi-precious metal, his aureate initial appearance has by no means been eclipsed.

The internally-worn pins and bolts that slow his latter-day progress through airport security were made necessary by the celebrated 1999 car-crash in Western Australia that should have written him off. Instead, he writes about it. Evoked with characteristic vividness, the car-crash is the first thing that happens in this autobiography, which thus 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 instalments, he survived to tell the story of his life.

So now we have the Owl Creek incident plus a long flashback: a brand-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 instalment for that. This instalment, broadly chronological, traces his Catholic upbringing in the Sydney of the 1940s and 1950s, shading into his university years and his early career as a freelance journalist, first in Australia and then in Europe. The book concludes with his departure for America in 1970. Thirty years into a career spent in that country, he still lives there today. His account of those three decades is going to be the story of an intellectual adventure, so let’s hope he is already working on it. But it should still be said that, even though this volume is only a preliminary, it is still detectably sparing with the main drama of his life, which has to do with how he reacted to art with his whole soul, and how the soul became richer because of it.

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. There is a paragraph early on, concerning one of his great-aunts who became a nun, which might have been designed to remind any fellow writer among his readers that the champion is still in town. Try just one sentence of it: ‘At the end of these audiences I would be expected to kiss her, which meant craning my neck to get my lips inside her elaborately starched and goffered ruff, its hive-like cells prepared, no doubt, by some wretched, rosary-clicking slavey of a postulant sister with the kind of iron last manufactured in the 1920s.’

Not just a ruff, but a goffered ruff. Nobody since Patrick Leigh-Fermor in his precocious youth has packed in quite so much precisely registered and lexically specified visual detail as Hughes does when he is on song. Although, in this book, he is not on song always, its average of readability would raise it high anyway, and there is more than enough opinionated reflection and generous regret to make the narrative 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 stand-alone masterpiece. But perhaps he was too modest, and 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 the personalised version of his early critical career right here and now. The unstoppably voluble Hughes — among a bunch of great Aussie talkers, he looks like being the last one who will ever learn to listen — might seem an unlikely candidate for shyness, but he has been a bit shy on this point, as if he wanted, when it came to questions of the mind, to forgo the heroics. But that’s where the heroics are that interest us most. The rest, after all, is just given to us.

About what he was given, Hughes is either compelled to be modest or else he still doesn’t realise just how gifted he was. The second thing, 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 his dynastic line was flat broke 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 harbour foreshore where Catholic boys were expected to get into training for great things. Hughes duly learned his Latin, but in emphasising the formal structure of the system that launched him he rather downplays his inbuilt fitness for his role, a range of qualities which, when he arrived at university, marked him out among the common run of students as if he had a neon halo.

He admits that he had a good memory, for example, but should have said that it was photographic. He admits that he was active as an illustrator for the student magazines and stage productions but should have said that his speed and skill left us flabbergasted. He admits that he flourished as a student journalist but fails to add that the downtown editors stormed the university walls and kidnapped him. 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 him in her company many times, and there wasn’t an occasion when I didn’t whimper from envy. But there was another one, called Barbara, who looked as if she spent her spare time standing in a sea-shell 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 compassionate touch on the wrist, Hughes’s omission of her name defies justice. And there were plenty more.

What grates on my nerves in this area is that he probably didn’t even have tabs on himself as a Lothario. Of all the young men I knew, he spent the least time glancing into mirrors. He must have just thought it was natural that all these unfeasibly lovely creatures fell into his arms. A certain unawareness of what life is like for ordinary mortals might have been detectable even then by someone suitably attuned, and is fully detectable now, like those pins of his going through the metal detector as he checks in at the airport for his latest flight to glory. The tendency on the part of the clever to imagine that less gifted people are being wilfully 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 realise that a superior intellect, if its owner is bent on assessing the life of human beings in the mass, is more likely to be a handicap than an advantage. There are signs that Hughes has been brought nearer to this realisation by the impact of a car coming in the other direction fast enough to break almost every bone in his body, but the job is not yet complete, perhaps because that wonderful brain of his came through in one piece.

Hughes is in no position to say how wonderful the brain was and is, even if he knows, which I suspect he doesn’t, quite. 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. I should say at this point that the much publicised Australian Expatriate Movement gets far too much attention in Australia and is likely to be misunderstood elsewhere, because it’s one of those neat media stories that travel too well, like cheap wine.

In recent years, by media operators and academic drones in Britain and Australia, the story has mainly been written around the adventures, real and supposed, of the so-called Famous Four, a globetrotting group of celebrities 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 Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts can be appreciated in their full splendour, 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. One way and another the expatriates are now, as the Australians say, quids in.

I can remember when it was different, and 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 this whole thing about a specific expatriate generation is an illusion, because Australia has been producing expatriates since Dame Nellie Melba. It’s something that all liberal democracies do, especially in the first flush of their prosperity, when the amount of marketable talent is beyond the capacity of local metropolitan outlets. They start colonising the earth, and Australia has long been sufficiently in flower to spread its pollen on the wind. There were always the theatrical people and the painters, and then, during and after Word 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 wrote a shelf of considerable volumes that it would take a long paragraph simply to enumerate, but sufficient to say that he was ahead of his time in realising 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 Australia, 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 stricken, poor mite, 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 each other, 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 some of its young exponents were to spend time abroad. Correctly assessing that Hughes was short of financial resources but was carrying the prose equivalent of what the Australian children’s radio programme called the Golden Boomerang, Moorehead invited the loping vagabond to stop by.

One of the many admirable things about Hughes is that he has always cherished his mentor as much as his mentor cherished him. Moorehead was the Virgil to Hughes’s Dante. The old hand didn’t just teach the youngster which local wine was which, he taught him the importance of not talking a book away — the most important lesson a writer can learn, and the harder to learn the better that he talks. The passages about Hughes’s creative sojourn with Moorehead would alone make this book worth the price. ‘I found 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. Tears of compassion soften the tone, but the style, as always, stays firm. There is never any question about Hughes’s ability to find the perfect written equivalent for anything in his range of feeling. There is only ever 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 vis-à-vis 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. I can remember how Danne came striding with would-be magisterial slowness through the dining room of Manning House (the cafeteria of the Women’s Union at Sydney University) and Germaine Greer said, ‘Oh, come on, Danne, relax.’ Germaine was three tables away from me so you can imagine that the comment was quite audible. Danne wasn’t fazed. She might have been on something even then.

In London she was on everything and Hughes piercingly describes the consequences. By a paradox mercifully quite rare in the play-power, alternative, Sixties lifestyle, Hughes went and married someone who actually believed in the play-power, alternative, Sixties lifestyle. 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 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 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 politeness demands that we should note the abundance before complaining that there might have been more. Before Hughes left Sydney, he already had an appreciative eye for the Australian art that he would later rank and classify in his pioneering critical work The Art of Australia (1966). 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 queuing 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 grey, 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. Saying everything as if he still has the young energy of discovery is what he does. 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, Robert Rauschenberg and others. But not enough others. We would have liked the whole catalogue, because the story of such a brilliant critic’s steadily accumulating and interacting enthusiasms, their ever-intensifying interplay of nuance, is his real autobiography. Those were the most important Things He Didn’t Know.

Once again, it might be a case of Hughes not quite knowing how rare his gift is. He is ready to risk opprobrium by calling himself an elitist. ‘For of course I am an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense.’ Elitists, however, even such large-minded and non-snobby 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 become a fisher of men, hauling the general viewers in the direction of a new life. Hughes did it with The Shock of the New.

In America the series was successful enough, but from an American viewpoint it is probably 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 Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski, but now it was being done by an Aussie who had based himself in New York. (Hughes went there in response to a telephoned invitation from Time magazine. Immured in his London flat, surrounded by the ruins of his marriage, Hughes was so stoned that he thought the CIA was after him.) He 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, and should, 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) that I warned him about how doing 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 bestseller. 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. The great Cimabue crucifix in the Museo dell’Opere of Santa Croce was stripped of its paint. At the head of his camera crew, Hughes arrived in time to gather up all the floating specks of pigment and put them in a jar, just in case the resulting mulch might be an aid to restoration. The possibility was never proved, because a workman threw away the jar. The whole episode is as riveting as that: 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 more coherent structure.

There would have been more room for art if there was less stuff about politics. An even more awkward truth is that the stuff about politics could have been more worthy of that superior brain we have been talking about, the piece of Hughes that was left intact after he was comprehensively screwed by his own car. At the subsequent inquest, 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 now. But his disinclination to censor himself means that he can easily talk himself into trouble.

What he didn’t seem to realise, 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 favoured (still favours) an Australian republic, and had several times flown the Pacific to speak against those lingering ties with Britain that he holds to be obsolete. The overwhelming majority of Australia’s intellectuals are Republican like him, but they didn’t necessarily think he was doing their cause a favour. 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 counter-productive 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 sound right to laugh at the imputation of privilege — I can remember well how 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 towards an oligarchy. The question of which interests would be favoured by a republic popped up quite early in the argument, and even that vast majority of the intelligentsia who were convinced that the coming of the republic was historically inevitable were still ready to question the credentials of a carpetbagger who looked 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 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 wrong-headed on the subject of the republic. But they preferred to think that the visiting fireman was patronising everybody, themselves included. This opinion of him was reinforced after the accident that turned him into Evel Knievel, when the press — never helpful to a celebrity on trial — gave him their standard bucketing and he reacted as if its personnel 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 contemplates saying a defiant goodbye forever to the land of his birth.

The land of his birth is unlikely to let it happen. If Australia’s too-much talked-about National Identity — that metaphysical abstraction which for so long has been longed for, and longed for so pointlessly because it was always there — means anything at all, it means something that comes with you wherever you go. Hughes spends a lot of time in this book 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. Nowadays he gets quite a lot of curled lip from the media, but the bitchery is really praise: praise for the larrikin, Australia’s eternal prodigal child.

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 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. He is very droll, for example, about the reactionary views of Robert Gordon Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia for most of our youth. But when Hughes accurately recollects the two scholarships he won to Sydney University, and that he wouldn’t have been able to go there without them, he neglects to say that his brilliant examination results would have secured him another scholarship, a Commonwealth Scholarship, had he required it: and that the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme — the chief reason why the Australian universities in the late 1950s were teeming with the names that have since become famous — was the invention of the Menzies government.

The Commonwealth Scholarship scheme educated the very generation of intellectuals who were to spend much of their lives vilifying the government that made their education possible. Such ironies are what Hughes should be reporting. I can’t believe he misses them out deliberately. I’m afraid they count among the small number of Things He Still Doesn’t Know. But they are far outweighed by the Things He Found Out, and he might consider putting a few more of those into a second edition, in the space left when he removes an elaborate, pages-long confusion between the F2B Bristol Fighter and the SE5. A stickler for accuracy in aeronautical matters — he was a mighty aero-modeller in his adolescence — Hughes will be horrified when he Googles the designations and sees the trick that his magnificent memory has played on him. The better the memory, the bigger the trick: it’s a rule in life.

But he can always fill the freed-up space with just one more radiant observation about his field of study and arena of true passion. I drafted this piece in the cafeteria across the street from the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s great masterpiece. It was registration day, and there were all those young students. I could remember when, in faraway Sydney, they used to be us; and I couldn’t look at any of that wonderful building’s details without being grateful to Hughes for helping to open my eyes, in those years when I still knew nothing except that I wanted to know everything. He didn’t have to find the language for being thrilling about the serious: he had it from birth, which is probably why, in this fine book which should be even finer than it is, he can treat his unrelenting adventure in the arts as incidental. But it’s fundamental, to him and to the whole bunch of us: surely he knows that. And as I sit typing this last paragraph in my London apartment, an email from a mutual friend tells me where Hughes is right now. He’s in Australia, promoting this book. The Japanese say it every day: I go and I come back.

(New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007)


Naturally gifted critic though he was, Hughes left Australia before he had had time to make a full estimation of how thoroughly the influence of the European refugees had changed the modern culture. His early cartoons were notably influenced by Molnar, a Hungarian immigrant who dominated the Sydney Morning Herald in the same way that Osbert Lancaster dominated London’s Daily Sketch. The European influence was already everywhere. For us natives, it was a matter of seeing what lay too close to be noticed. Later on, with the benefit of exile, Hughes got things in perspective, but by then his early remarks about Australia’s isolation had been published and taken hold. A star critic will always need criticism in his turn, but Hughes was so brilliant that no modifying voice could be heard against his own. It was a pity, because the full story of the modern Euro-Australian interchange was one he might have told earlier, and thus helped to save a generation of Australian cultural pundits from a career spent gazing into their own navels. But he had other stories to tell, and they changed the world. The Shock of the New was an Australian expatriate achievement on a level with Rod Laver winning Wimbledon five times, Dame Joan Sutherland singing the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden, and Sir Jack Brabham designing the car in which he won the World Championship.