My love for ‘Hughesy’

The other day my favourite art critic Robert Hughes ( or Hughesy as my friend John calls him) died.

A picture of him looking stunning in his motorcycle gear at a Sydney art gallery was my introduction to him in the 70’s along with his book on Australian art ‘The Art of Australia’.

Robert Hughes with motorcycleI didn’t always agree with his opinions (though mostly I agreed) but I always looked forward to reading them. His enormous sensitivity to art and artists, his humour and wit and his ability to write a write a sentence at once thought provoking, fascinating and beautiful always makes his books a must read. I certainly haven’t read them all but Nothing if not Critical is art writing at its best. And hugely entertaining at that.

My personal favourite is not about art but about Australia. His ‘The Fatal Shore’ the story of Australia’s founding as a penal colony, is to me, his love poem to Australia as bizarre as that sounds.

Here’s a rather horrible scene which describes the final hours of an escapee from Macquarie Harbour, one of two men left from an original group of eight, who turned to cannibalism for survival but told in Robert’s inimitable style.

“When Pearce stopped, so did Greenhill. When one squatted, so did the other. There was no question of sleep. ‘I watched Greenhill for two nights, and I thought he eyed me more than usual.’ One imagines them: a small fire of eucalyptus branches in the immense cave of the southern night, beneath the drift and icy prickle of unfamiliar stars; the secret bush noises beyond the outer ring of firelight – rustle of grass, flutter and croaking of nocturnal birds — all sharpened and magnified by fear…”

Perhaps the comparisons overstating it but it reminds me of Homer’s ‘The Illiad’ with the same combination of horrible human acts and the beauty of nature popping up here and there like a question mark. But I don’t think so.

Rest in peace Hughesy (28th July 1938 – August 6th 2012).

(Here’s a wonderful remembrance from Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.)

“In art there is no progress, only fluctuations of intensity.”

Robert Hughes


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