Saturday, 25 August 2012

Robert Hughes: Streetbrawling Visionary

by James Burkinshaw

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)
 The passing of Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes within days of each other feels like the death of the Titans. Both were masters of the epigrammatic put-down, but while Vidal presented himself as the last aristocrat, Hughes’ image was that of a street-brawler, a thug.”   Judith Flanders, Daily Telegraph

When I was at school, many, many years ago, we had something called "Art Appreciation Club", which involved a weekly pilgrimage to the hallowed Audio Visual Room, home to the school’s sole Video Cassette Player. Here, the miraculous new technology of video enabled us to experience two landmarks of twentieth century television:  Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New. The contrast between the two presenters could not have been more stark. Clark was the product of Winchester College and Oxford, sleek and urbane, guiding the viewer from Renaissance to Rococo and Realism with patrician authority. Meanwhile, taking us from Cezanne to Warhol was a man who looked like a retired boxer, the rumpled, rumbling, rubicund Robert Hughes, possessed of a "plain-speaking pugnacity redolent more of the bars of his native Sydney than the salons of Paris or New York” (Daily Telegraph)He was also the greatest art critic and one of the finest writers of the last half-century.

Civilisation (Episode 1):

The Shock of the New (Episode 1):

Hughes always thought of himself not as an art critic but "a writer one of whose subjects was art.” Indeed, one of Hughes’ most acclaimed books was not a work of art criticism but a vivid and often harrowing history of his native Australia, The Fatal Shore, which mined hitherto unpublished source material to retrieve the lost voices of the convicts who were Australia’s founding fathers and mothers. It laid bare Australia's violent, often brutal, origins: "The late eighteenth century abounded in schemes of social goodness thrown off by its burgeoning sense of revolution. But here, the process was to be reversed: not Utopia, but Dystopia, not Rousseau's natural man moving in moral grace amid free social contracts, but man coerced, exiled, deracinated, in chains. The intellectual patrons of Australia, in its first colonial years, were Hobbes and Sade."  The Fatal Shore “told (Hughes') countrymen who they were" argued Peter Carey, "and what darkness we had to confront in order to grow up. He had grasped the cruelty of our birth and shoved it in our faces. Here, in this vast masterpiece, was the hell we were born into, and he would be our Dante.”

High Noon by Edward Hopper, 1949
His 1993 polemic The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America was an equally raw critique of his adopted country (where he lived from 1970), attacking both Right (“with somnambulistic efficiency Reagan educated America down to his level”) and Left (“The world changes more deeply, widely, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917... and the American academic left keeps fretting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens’ portrayal of Little Nell”). However, four years later, he wrote what he described as his "love letter to America", American Visions (see video below), an extraordinarily passionate as well as perceptive history not only of American art but of America itself. "Hughes was ultimately an American in spirit" notes Judith Flanders, "constantly searching for new worlds.” His evocation of Puritan New England could serve as a description of his own aesthetic: “Its newness was not mere novelty---they railed against that---but the deep newness of spiritual renovation . . .New Canaan, New Bedford, New Salem, New London represented not mimicry but transfiguration . . They had reconstituted themselves as a new people---an astonishing act of arrogance, or of faith: in fact, of both . . . Within a generation, the New England landscape could be perceived not as wilderness but as a sacramental space.”

Head of J.Y.M. by Frank Auerbach, 1981
Hughes was drawn to this sacramental aesthetic: “I love genuinely visionary, mystical art." His own experience of hallucinations in later life (the long-term consequence of a brutal car-crash in 1999) led him to identify closely with the phantasmagorical vision of Francesco de Goya, who "poured forth a dark kind of truth that painting had before left untouched . . .Some aspects of Goya are remote from our ironised culture. We cannot believe art can change the moral focus of the world. Goya did, and his intense earnestness puts him at a remove from our world. He wanted to make images that compel a moral understanding of ordinary and terrible things." Hughes sought this combination of humanism and mysticism in such contemporaries as Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud. In Auerbach’s work, "A dense structure unfolds as you look. The essential subject of the work, however, is not that structure as a given thing, but rather the process of its discovery. The image stays mobile and open to radical change right up to the last minute . . This seizure and squeezing of reality goes on in Lucian Freud’s work, too, but in a colder way . . . Every burst vein and inch of sagging flesh, each tuft of armpit hair is set forth, not “clinically” but stripped of narrative and sentiment. The image, in a favourite word of both Freud and Auerbach, compels assent by its “rawness” . . . The ability to re-form the naked body in terms of clear, energetic shape while seeming not to lose a pore, not a hair, of its tensely scrutinised presence, seems to define Freud’s idea of pictorial truth. The body is new every time and the whole of it is a portrait." The body, as well as the landscape, could be a transfigured, sacramental space, a new world.

Self-Portrait by Lucian Freud, 1985
 "At 81, Freud is so much younger than any of the Britart dreck installed on the other side of the Thames”, Hughes wrote in 2003, referring to the new generation of artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, who Hughes saw as the heirs of Andy Warhol, an artist he had savaged a quarter of a century earlier: “a famous artist who loved nothing but banality and sameness. Nothing would be left in the sphere of art except its use as a container for celebrity . . . at one stroke, the idea of the avant-garde was consigned to its social parody, the world of fashion, promotion and commercial manipulation . . . Warhol did more than any other painter alive to turn the art world into the art business." 

For all of their differences in background and style, Kenneth Clark and Robert Hughes both ended their television series with jeremiads about the future of art, Clark concluding (in 1969) “One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us”, Hughes (a decade later) “The contrast between our fin-de-siecle and the last seems blinding: from Cezanne and Seurat to Gilbert and George in just a hundred years. The year 1900 seemed to promise a renewed world, but there can be few who watch the approach of the year 2000 with anything but scepticism and dread.” With the passing of the Millennium, the intensity of his attacks on those he saw as Warhol’s offspring only increased: “image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism." As Adam Gopnik notes, “Hughes had an impressive line in indignation, but he was allergic to irony . . . (there is) a kind of robust, unashamed absence of irony, or meta-awareness, in his work, an absence of sentences placed in inverted quotations or of any despair about the ability of plain speech to achieve plain ends. What he really detested was mannerism, in all its guises, whether the mannerism was the Italian kind that had to be cured by Caravaggio or of the postmodern kind that had yet to be cured at all. If this left him blind to the virtues that mannerism may contain—elliptical thought, the tangle of reference, stylishness—well, who would not want to be in a minority clamoring for truth and passion in a mannerist age?”

American Visions (Episode 1): 

Read Simon Schama's  A Fierce Critic and Powerful Voice Now Silenced, in The Daily Beast

Read Adam Gopnik's Postscript: Robert Hughes, in The New Yorker

Read an interview with PGS Artist-in-Residence, Christine Derry: No Boundaries: Encountering Art

Read a tribute to Gore Vidal

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