Robert Hughes, who has died aged 74 after a long illness, dismissed the notion of Crocodile Dundee as a representative Australian figure as “macho commedia dell’arte.” All the same, Hughes as the Crocodile Dundee of art criticism is too good a parallel to reject: burly ocker from the outback, tinny in left hand, confronted by New York aesthete armed with stiletto, reaches with his right hand for his own massive bush knife, commenting slyly to his terrified assailant: “Now that’s what I call a knife.”
I described him in the Guardian once as writing the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay and Dame Edna Everage; Hughes enjoyed the description. His prose was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing. Much he cared.
When he reached a mass audience for the first time in 1980 with his book and television series The Shock of the New, a history of modern art starting with the Eiffel Tower and graced with a title that still resounds in 100 later punning imitations, some of the BBC hierarchy greeted the proposal that Hughes should do the series with ill-favoured disdain. “Why a journalist?” they asked, remembering the urbanity of Lord Clark of Civilization.
He gave them their answer with the best series of programs about modern art yet made for television, low on theory, high on the kind of epigrammatic judgment that condenses deep truths. Van Gogh, he said, “was the hinge on which 19th-century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism.” Jackson Pollock “evoked that peculiarly American landscape experience, Whitman’s ‘vast Something,’ which was part of his natural heritage as a boy in Cody, Wyoming.” And his description of the cubism of Picasso and Braque still stands as the most coherent 10-page summary in the literature.
Hughes was born in Sydney into a family of lawyers descended from an Irish policeman who had emigrated to Australia 100 years before Robert’s birth. This was something of which Hughes was obscurely ashamed, because convicts were to be the heroes of his great work of Australian social history, The Fatal Shore (1987). His father died when he was 12, and he went to a Jesuit boarding school, St Ignatius college.
At Sydney University, where he went to study architecture, he was academically undistinguished. In his words: “I actually succeeded in failing first year arts, which any moderately intelligent amoeba could have passed.”
All the same, he went on at the age of 28 to write a book on The Art of Australia. He himself later dismissed this as juvenilia. In truth, it is a useful source on Australian art. After its publication the popular historian Alan Moorehead advised Hughes, who by now was making a bare living as a freelance architectural writer, to go to Europe.
Hughes took the advice, traveled around the great art capitals and the dodgier casinos, washed ashore in London, wrote art criticism for the London-based Sunday Times which, with the proviso that art did not have the hold on the public imagination then that it does now, had something of the same effect as the young Kenneth Tynan erupting in the theatre columns of the Observer. In London he wrote a book called Heaven and Hell in Western Art (1969) that bombed. However, a Time magazine executive happened upon a copy, leafed through it, and promptly hired Hughes as art critic. In 1970 he moved to Manhattan and wrote for Time for the rest of the century.