His own life as a work of art

Robert Hughes tells how an Australian expat landed a three-decade stint as Time magazine's art critic.

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Reading Robert Hughes you don't expect a soft ride. On the other hand, this Australian expatriate and self-styled "cultural critic" – he was art critic for Time magazine over three decades from 1970 – can reveal a movingly tender side.

For example, in his highly readable memoir, Things I Didn't Know, he describes his encounter in the 1960s with Goya's painting in the Prado Museum in Madrid, "Execution of the Rebels on the Third of May." Hughes writes: "The painting thrilled me and, as sometimes but not often happens, moved me to tears."

He adds: "Even if you feel you should keep steady at the funerals of relatives, you should learn to weep in a museum. Earlier ages understood such matters. Men who could view the carnage-strewn fields of Waterloo or Albuera with outward impassivity, if not inner calm, were quite capable of blubbering at the sight of an Attic red-figure vase or the sound of Edmund Kean in Macbeth."

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But this memoir is not for the over sensitive. Hughes's preference for uttering the occasional good old English (or Australian) obscenity rather than pussyfooting around euphemisms may seem refreshing to some and shocking to others.

A harsh look at himself

Either way, he can only rarely be accused of being dull (except, strangely, enough, when talking about that greatly admired artist, Piero della Francesca). His anecdotes are frequently hilarious, sometimes cruel or vindictive, but largely entertaining. Hughes's sheer relish for writing is irresistible. He can be self-regarding but, as he looks back at his younger self, he can also be disarmingly critical and self- deprecatory.

The book starts out with a gruesome and unrelenting description (pages of it) detailing the aftermath of a car accident that might have proved fatal. A masterly chronicler of disaster, later in the book Hughes also expands brilliantly on his firsthand experience of the devastation wrought by the 1966 flood in Florence, Italy, when the Arno burst its banks, damaging countless cultural treasures.

Not unlike the Arno, Hughes is the sort of ebullient writer who floods his reader with great bursting accumulations of words and gets carried away with the sheer exuberance of his narrative. It is compelling. You don't want to miss a sentence, even when he veers off on a particular tangent or expounds at length on a particular obsession.

Rebellion and escape

He discusses his Roman Catholic upbringing and schooling with frankness, aware that it has influenced his life crucially. One of his Jesuit teachers encouraged him to read widely, recognizing the boy's obviously intelligent curiosity – until a higher authority clamped down on him.

But Hughes had already begun to doubt and question required beliefs. In later years he rebelled entirely and claimed an agnostic independence.

He also grew desperate for another kind of escape as his interest in art grew – escape from the isolation of the Australian art world with what Hughes calls its "image deprivation." London, and then Italy, redressed this imbalance.

But as an Australian abroad it wasn't all plain sailing. For a start, stay-at-home fellow countrymen tended to dismiss expats as somewhat traitorous. But Hughes was not alone. Others such as the broadcaster Clive James and the satirist Barry Humphries were contemporaries who also looked for recognition in Britain.

Among those he met abroad, Hughes describes certain invaluable mentors, in particular, Alan Moorhead, who offered friendship, quiet and timely advice, and – most critically – exemplified a writer's necessary professionalism.

But there were the less fortunate encounters as well. Once Cyril Connolly, a writer whom Hughes admired enormously, snubbed him mercilessly. It happened at a Tate Gallery exhibit, when Hughes finally summoned enough courage to approach Connolly and thank him for a book of his that had encouraged Hughes to leave Australia.

Hughes's speech "took rather a long time," he recalls, "and by the end of it I caught an icy glint in Connolly's froggy eyes. 'I cannot believe,' he said at last, 'that I am to be held entirely responsible for the accidental effects of my juvenilia in remote colonies.' "

Darker days

Hughes made enemies as well as friends along the way. He could be every bit as dismissive as Connolly to those he hated (although not to their faces.)

Sadly, one who turned from friend to enemy was his first wife. Hughes is brutally frank about the miseries of this marriage, wrapped up as it was with the promiscuous drug culture of the 1960s. In fact, some of Hughes's most excoriating cultural criticism is aimed at what he sees as the pseudorevolutionary nonsense of the hippy generation.

Hughes is also candid about reporting – and sometimes justifying – the highs and lows of his career. He got (poorly paid) work from the BBC. A publisher or two commissioned him to write art books, one about Australian art, one about heaven and hell in art (which caught the attention of Time's managing editor, Henry Grunwald and led to his being hired there), and one about Leonardo da Vinci. This last, after considerable work, failed to materialize and Hughes explains – in great detail – why it did not.

Leonardo is a vast subject even for a Renaissance scholar (which Hughes was not). In addition, Hughes found him cold and unsympathetic, an impossible subject for a writer impelled more by strong feeling than intellectual interest.

The strength of Hughes's writing when stoked by passion was demonstrated again recently by his excellent 2004 book on Goya. But if it requires further proof, this memoir should provide ample confirmation.

Christopher Andreae has been writing on arts for the Monitor since the 1960s. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

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