November 2006


Time’s arrow

By Peter Craven
Time’s arrow
An interview with Robert Hughes

In the '70s, when Robert Hughes recapitulated and refined his ideas about Australian art in an ABC TV series, the brio and drama he brought to it were as dazzling as any Brett Whitely painting, any Opera House giving definition to a great Harbour: you knew you were in the presence of a first-rate critic who was also a great performer. A critic is not supposed to provide the kind of epiphany that is created by great works of art like Nolan's Kelly paintings and the novels of Patrick White, yet Hughes came across like Olivier and Tynan rolled into one. He had what Aristotle described as the most fundamental gift a writer can have, the gift of metaphor, but he was also a magician of his electronic medium, like Kenneth Clark, or Alastair Cooke on radio.

Hughes had become the art critic of Time magazine in 1970, and you could read those page-long pieces - which as severe a judge as Gerald Murnane once described as being written in flawless prose - 30 or so times a year. There were also, over the decades, those TV surveys of art, The Shock of the New and American Visions, which unrolled like epics, with Hughes as their witness, their Ishmael. With his handsome map-of-Ireland face and worn-leather voice, he would be seen standing in a graveyard that was once a battleground of World War I. "If you're looking for the French Ezra Pound or the English Picasso, he's probably to be found here," he would say. Or he would turn from his description of the great Saint-Gaudens sculpture of General Sherman in Central Park to quote Sherman making the West Point cadets shiver: "The glory of war is all moonshine. I remember nothing but guns and wounds and screams. War is hell, gentlemen."

Hughes, whether in print or on the small screen, was a storyteller, and the stories he told, although legendary in their vividness, were also true. Whatever it was that might have made him a poet or an actor was expressing itself in the form of art history translated to journalism and television. The art, no matter how classical or canonical, was talked about as if the paint were still wet. Caravaggio's models, Hughes would tell us, were rough trade and their hair was like black ice-cream. But the history was not just the history of art movements; it was also the blood and the wounds, the drama of war as well as the sorrow and the pity.

Then, in 1987, came The Fatal Shore. Stuart Macintyre compared it to Gibbon and Bernard Smith compared it to Michelet; Manning Clark, no stranger to the circus ring of narrative, said that Hughes had shown that history could be the greatest show on earth. The book re-imagined the Australia of the First Fleet settlement and its aftermath, the Australia of Phillip and Bennelong and Port Arthur, as if it were a compendious vision of the world. It was an epical blood-soaked image, a world of the lash and the chains, but it was everywhere lightened and variegated by the soaring vigour of its telling and the sense of "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation". For, while the central chronicle is filled with pain and the drama of pain, the book is also a hymn to Australia.

There are a hundred objections that can levelled at The Fatal Shore. If convict Australia was a gulag, how come it was also a brave new world? And wasn't the lash used rather less than the flog-opera aspect of the book might suggest? Notwithstanding this, The Fatal Shore is a masterpiece. If you want a slice of Australian history as a form of enthralment, as it is in Plutarch and the great historians who live as literature, then this is the real thing. It may seem like an odd work for an art critic to have written, but Hughes, whom the Jesuits had reading Gibbon at 15, has always been as interested in the world represented as in the nature of its representation.

He was born in 1938 to an establishment (though Catholic) Sydney family - his grandfather was the first Lord Mayor of the city, his father was a pioneering aviator and his brother Tom, the most glittering silk at the Sydney bar in the past few decades, was once Australia's attorney-general. Perhaps only Sydney could have given birth to Robert Hughes: he has, with bells on, that indomitable self-confidence which Peter Porter says only shines out of a Sydney University person. Barry Humphries was paying him a compliment, however backhandedly, when he pretended that Hughes had been the model for Sir Les Patterson, because the better part of 40 years in New York has only refined Hughes's Australianness, which remains unmistakable in his speech and manner. That very Harbourside self-possession may be the clue to what Clive James meant when he said of Hughes's New York domicile that perhaps he just needed something that big at his feet.

What's at Robert Hughes's feet when we talk is the parade of the gigants, those 18-foot figures of the saints, in the festival of La Mercè that staggers over the streets of Barcelona. Hughes is in the capital of Catalonia to receive the Creu de San Jordi which, as he says, is a gong so large that it's likely to chip the crockery at the table in front of you. He has been awarded it no doubt partly because of his 1992 book Barcelona, an eloquent homage which includes a section on Gaudi and his Sagrada Família that burns as bright as anything he has written. His wife, Doris, to whom he is devoted, is dancing in the street with the giants, but he is sitting in his room in the Hotel Colon, talking about the first volume of his memoirs, Things I Didn't Know.

Every so often I can hear him hurl himself to his feet with the aid of a stick, in order to get some coffee or go to the bathroom. In 1999, Hughes was involved in a near fatal car accident on a deserted road in Broome which not only had him in a coma for weeks and shattered his body, but also involved him in a prosecution for dangerous driving that engendered a lot of bitterness and misunderstanding. It was claimed in the press that he had called the prosecutor at his trial, who was of Indian extraction, a "currymuncher" (even though Hughes has said he wasn't aware of the expression), that he had spoken disparagingly of the people in the other car (some of whom had made an extortion bid), and that he had criticised the rescuing fire brigade for taking his fish (whereas, he says, his one hope was that someone would get to eat it).

It was a comedy of antipodean errors, and it was followed by the damning reception of his documentary Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore. There were even reports of people cold-shouldering Hughes when he attended the funeral of his son, Danton, who committed suicide in 2002. The huntin', shootin', fishin' art critic has been weakened by the experience, and there must have been moments of bitterness when his feelings about the country of his birth were at a nadir. However, he's sounding remarkably chipper as he settles down to discuss what he cheerfully calls "400 pages of narcissistic self-explication".

When I start by referring to the digressive apparatus of Things I Didn't Know - which includes long sections about his father's Italian tour as a young man and his chance meeting with his dying brother during World War I, as well as the history of the Jesuits - as taking time off, he denies the charge. "I don't think that's taking time off; I think it's an absolutely integral part of the story. Though Dad died when I was 12, to some extent he continued to rule me from the grave, as you might imagine. And he was always held up to me by my elder brothers and by my mother, who absolutely worshipped him, as the noble dead knight.

"He was an admirable man, though his beliefs were not - or some of them were not - ones I could possibly share. My father in my childish life was the representative of Catholic orthodoxy. And if I was going to react against Catholic orthodoxy, this would be partly a reaction against him. It's strange, because I don't think of myself as having a bone to pick with Dad but, on the other hand, it turned out that I didn't believe in the same things and that he would have been bitterly disappointed, I think, had he known that that was going to happen. He would have wanted me to be a lawyer and a Catholic and something else."

An Australian patriot, perhaps? "I didn't fulfil any of those desires." But then, perhaps he did in complex ways. "I certainly did, to some extent. For instance, the fact that I've never really collected art, still less dealt in it, would seem to go directly to the effect of Dad's rigorous kind of refusal to have any conflict of interest in his legal and corporate life."

And doesn't The Fatal Shore come out of a passionate feeling for Australia and its history? "Despite what these self-appointed enemies of mine were saying a few years ago, the book does come out of real patriotism. If there's one thing you can say about The Fatal Shore, it is that it's really written by an Australian - to that extent it reveals something of my father's intense influence on me.

"I don't think Dad would have been furious at my becoming an expatriate. He might have been a bit disappointed. But I don't think he would ever have entertained this silly notion that I've seen expressed in recent years that in some way expatriation is treason."

The conversation moves inevitably to Hughes's education at Riverview with the Jesuits. "I don't resent them, either. I did well out of them. They gave me a marvellous education. I'm profoundly grateful to them and there's a whole side of me that is Jesuitical and would never have anything to say against Jesuit education. The only thing that I think was really wrong was the use of corporal punishment. Though I have to say that although I obviously didn't like it at the time, I don't think it did me any permanent harm."

Besides, in the past he has said that it gave him some understanding into the predicament of the convicts. "Well, I think it did give me a tiny window. I can't say, for instance, that The Fatal Shore would have been a better book if I'd never received the strap. Americans who have read Things I Didn't Know have slightly goggled at me and said, ‘Oh, why weren't you turned into a crazed pervert by all this?' People just got on with their psychic development. It's amazing how adaptable the human psyche can be."

At St Ignatius in Riverview, Robert Hughes encountered Father Gerald Jones, who - despite an unusual abhorrence of the ancient Cretans - presented ancient history as the most engrossing kind of story. It was there, too, that the teenage Hughes was to play both Macbeth and Brutus, and when I allude to this he starts reciting Brutus's speech about "between the acting of a dread thing". He laughs with relish at the sheer pleasure of beautiful language and says he won't start on Eliot's The Waste Land, which he thinks he could still quote by heart. "I could do ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland', but it would rack your telephone bill up a bit," he offers. And then, not able to help himself, he booms out the opening lines of Hopkins' poem: "Thou mastering me / God! giver of breath and bread; / World's strand, sway of the sea; / Lord of living and dead ..." He goes on to say that he thinks Hopkins was the greatest of the Victorian poets, even though some of his Jesuit masters, not so fond of their confrère's modernism, preferred Matthew Arnold. "Hopkins was a modernist before modernism; so much of what we think of as quintessentially modernist is Hopkinsish."

In one sense, Hughes is substantiating just what I had been speculating about. Was there a histrionic streak in him which was actuated by his father's death? "I think there undoubtedly was. And I think the histrionic streak consisted of trying out adult roles to make up for the loss of what should have been the overwhelming adult role. Not so much that I'd want to take it up with a shrink. But also, there's nothing that so promotes histrionic tendencies as a solitary childhood. I didn't have much connection with my brothers and certainly very little intimacy, and they appeared to me more as authority figures than as co-conspirators. And I used to spend a great deal of time talking to myself - which, of course, was a great help later with television. I know it sounds odd, but the kind of television I've always done is of the nature of soliloquy, to an audience which isn't actually there."

Hughes did have a close relationship with his aunt, who had followed his mother from England. "Dear Mim," he says, his voice softening. "She taught me an awful lot. She awakened my interest in cooking, in gardening and, above all, in dogs." Hughes says that a love of dogs is one of the strongest elements in the bond between him and his wife, Doris, and it goes back to his aunt. I suggest to him that she comes across in Things I Didn't Know by implication as a warmer presence than his mother.

"I think it's true to say that she was warmer. Mum was derailed by Dad's death. Although today if a husband died when the wife was 51, you wouldn't totally rule it out of possibility that she might meet somebody and marry him or have an affair with him or whatever. But this, again, was not on the horizon in Catholic Australia in those days. You see, my mother had invested so much in her relationship with Dad, a relationship that had depended very much on adoration, expressed itself in adoration, so that after his death she really could do nothing but idealise his memory."

Robert Hughes has the deepest kind of respect for the bravery of his father, who won the Military Cross as an airman in World War I and trained pilots in World War II. When Hughes was pulled from the wreckage of his car in 1999, the man he had been fishing with, a former Australian commando, Danny O'Sullivan, told him that he knew he'd survive: he was the toughest old bastard he knew. When Hughes suggested that this was a preposterous comment for a one-time commando to make, O'Sullivan qualified it: "Well, the toughest old art critic I know."

It's part of the paradox of Robert Hughes, a high flyer in a dandyish bowtie of a profession. It's not a contradiction; it's simply part of his complexity. He had always liked hunting and fishing as well as soliloquising to a camera about art, just as he was always besotted with the history of the world in which great art transpired. Action is never far from Hughes's contemplation, even though his every gesture and locution has an actor's precision. He is one of the greatest talkers I have met, and what is performative about his conversation and the way it is projected is the opposite of self-regarding - even though anyone in interview sings the song of himself, and all the more so when he has written a memoir.

His conversation is deeply courteous, and there's also the feeling - he talks like a book, with a fiercely compositional elegance - that he's singing for his supper. At school, Hughes, actor and speechmaker extraordinaire, was nicknamed by his classmates "Fucking Churchill", and no doubt the orotund gravity was a good deal weirder coming out of the mouth of a schoolboy. I suspect, though, that part of what got him in such trouble in Broome, apart from sheer bad luck, was that in the perilous situation of the court case and with the added element of the Australian media (faced with the thrilling spectacle of a tall poppy in a tight place), he simply couldn't shut up. Nature's actors, when they are haunted by the ideal of the man of action, find it difficult to improvise their way through real-life drama when it is writ spectacular: think of Oscar Wilde and the way Yeats said he thought of him as a soldier.

Hughes did brilliantly at school but then bombed out of first year law at university. Yes, he says, it was a felix culpa, because he doesn't think he would have made a wonderful barrister. He might have given Charlie Waterstreet a run for his money, but he wouldn't have been a patch on his brother Tom: "Imagine being thought of forever as Tom Hughes's younger brother. What a nightmare!"

I asked him if he ever contemplated alternate fates. Did he wonder about what would have happened if Donald Horne hadn't asked him to write art reviews, if he hadn't done cartoons for Tom Fitzgerald of Nation and later for Murdoch, if he hadn't been asked to write for Time? Would he simply have stayed an Australian painter? (He once described himself as "the dabbest de Kooning imitator in the Southern hemisphere".)

"I don't have the slightest idea," he replies, after a pause. "I don't think I would have gone anywhere as an Australian painter. It's impossible, you know, when you think of how variable one's life is and how peculiar and fugitive the opportunities it presents can be." He stops to laugh at himself and how mock-Johnsonian that phrase sounds, but goes on. "If you think of that and then try and imagine what you might have become if all that stuff hadn't happened, it's impossible to come up with an answer. You know, If me aunt had had balls she would have been me uncle."

"I can certainly look back at people who at various stages of my life gave me a sense of certain possibilities. Of how to do things, how to make actual something I only saw as potential. I guess the big example of that in my life would have been Alan Moorehead." Moorehead was, as Hughes became, an expatriate Australian journalist of great distinction and fame, who wrote books of history which were widely read around the English-speaking world. Hughes dedicated The Fatal Shore to him, citing one of the loftiest invocations in literature, the words of Dante to his teacher, Brunetto Latini. He had lived with Moorehead at Port'Ercole in Italy, and it was Moorehead who made him go back to London and discipline himself into the routine of a writer. "He was totally professional, which I was not. I had literally never met anybody who got up in the morning and went into a room and wrote. And he told me to get my head out of it."

When I put it to Hughes that Italy made him, he immediately picks up the echo: "Siena mi fe, e disfece mi Maremma," he chants. And yes, there are Dantean touches to his story. "It made me because it enabled me for the first time in my life to live - I didn't have money but I was able to live - surrounded by things of great beauty and aesthetic interest which were man-made. Australia is full of beautiful landscapes and seascapes and so forth, but they're all natural. But the way culture and nature interpenetrated and infused one another in Italy: that was new to me. The Italians make landscapes. And I'd always wanted that, with all my heart.

"When people ask me, ‘Why did you become an expat?' I guess that has to be my answer. I certainly didn't go to Europe with the expectation of becoming rich and famous. I just wanted to see what was there. This is not a big problem for literary critics, because books go everywhere - but paintings and buildings do not. And when I'm asked if I'm going to come back and live in Australia, I think the honest answer is no. Because there's no particular reason why I should. I would hate to be out of contact with Australia, but I would just miss Europe too much."

He muses about how much his recognition in Catalonia, for instance, means to him, and the conversation shifts to his often articulated idea that the day of the great metropolitan centre for art - Paris, then New York - has had its day. "Centrality matters less and less as time goes by. For various reasons, some of which have to do with the ease of travel and some of which are to do to with the way that electronic images, which can never replace the real world, can nevertheless give a lead into it in a way that tends to deprovincialise you. I love the fact that once all art was provincial; that is to say, it issued from certain local needs or from local interpretations of universal needs, one example being the art of the Catholic Church.

"The idea that you have to be in a particular imperial place, which was a very real need for an artist like Caravaggio, is not really so intense in our own time, although people think it is. I mean, I think it's a good idea to have been to Rome and New York and blah blah. But the idea that you can't make stuff that's worthwhile except under the gravitational field of the centre: I don't think that's really so true anymore."

Of course, Hughes could be said to be lucky in these respects. I put it to him that he grew up in Australia when it had some formidable painters. "Oh, it had wonderful energy. Whether it still does or not, I don't know, because I don't live there. But certainly the energies of cultural desire that ran through the Australian art world in the 1950s and early '60s and which formed my expectations, they were real. There's no question: they were real."

Then he had his formative Italian experience, which was followed by his time in London (where he made that crucial connection with the BBC). But, unlike a lot of Australians, he didn't get stuck in London, because he was able to go to New York. "Well, I was able to because Time made me the offer. It still makes me shudder when I think what might have happened to me if they hadn't wanted to hire me at the time. No, you're absolutely right, I had several bites of the cherry. It was a big cherry, too - it was more the size of a pear. I was very lucky ... I've got no complaints about how it fell out. I've had some fairly awful disappointments, too; but, on balance, I've been really lucky."

Among the horrors on the personal side were the loss of his son, Danton, and what sounds like a pretty ghastly first marriage. Hughes says that he didn't sign up to any version of free love when he married his first wife, Danne: his conception of marriage derived both from the example of his Catholic parents and the surrealist notion of the sacrament. While he was with Danne he may have had the odd flutter on the side, but it was not something he believed in, and he points to his present marital bliss with Doris and his absolute fidelity to her. They live an hour or so out of New York with her younger child and their dogs. It's a comfortable existence, almost suburban, with what he calls "a semi-semi-rural" aspect.

Hughes misses the carpentry he used to do on Shelter Island, though, which taught him how to read furniture and to understand the degree of skill involved. He's pleased that he knows enough about making things to appreciate greatness when he sees it, and to understand the sheer difficulty of creating something that looks simple.

His booming voice and its sheer Australian sunniness, coming down the line from a Barcelona loud with festivity, is exhilarating in the middle of the dead, dark night in Melbourne. It's a jolt back to reality when I hear him groan as he jerks himself upright on his stick to move across the room. It's saddening that a man so ebullient should have been afflicted in this way. Saddening, too, that he should have suffered the scorn of fellow Australians all too happy to see him down.

Still, I can sense the glow of satisfaction in him at having finished the first volume of his memoirs. There will be an anatomy of the art world in volume two, and there will also be more of the heartache, more of Danne and Danton. One of the enchantments of Things I Didn't Know is that it tells the reader something of the privacies of this remarkable man. No image in the book is more poignant than that of a young Hughes making model aeroplanes with wings of Japanese fine paper, creating images of the sort of machines in which his father had soared through the air for the honour of his country and the glory of his God.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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