Vale Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes, art critic, author, and documentarian, has passed away in New York, aged 74. Hughes was known for leading Australian art and artists to an unprecedented prominence internationally, and for presenting high art’ to ordinary Australians.
I have great admiration for Robert Hughes and what he did for Australia, says Ted Snell, Chair of the Australia Council Visual Arts Board. He made the leap to the world stage in the 1960s and at that time there were very few Australian artists or commentators there. The impact of this was truly significant.
He showed the rest of the world that Australia wasn’t some cultural backwater, but in fact was right there at the cutting edge of arts, culture and cultural debate.
Hughes left Australia for Europe in 1964, living for a time in Italy before settling in London (1965) where he wrote for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Observer, among others, and contributed to the London version of Oz.
In 1970 he moved to New York, where he was appointed as TIME magazine’s art critic, a role where he quickly established himself as a strong, influential voice.
In his initial steps to Europe he was a part of a group including people such as Germaine Greer, Harry Hooton and Clive James. But when he ventured to New York he truly stepped out on his own
This was so important to Australian artists. It gave them a role model and the confidence to get out to the rest of the world and it created an interest in those artists.
His turn of phrase was one that resonated with ordinary Australians and helped to bring the arts into their lives. Whether it was a review, an essay or a book, his flair for language absorbed readers in to his pages. And on television, his magnetism was unquestionable.
And while his views were frequently blunt, they always started further conversation, much of which worked considerably to develop the arts in Australia.
He had a strong focus on visual arts, but his influence is far greater than that sphere. He worked across the arts, culture, and history, contributing greatly to all.
In his 1987 book The Fatal Shore, Hughes provided a poignant, gritty depiction of Australia’s convict history. It still holds world wide acclaim and is regarded as one of the great works of Australian literature.
He wrote The Art of Australia, a comprehensive review of Australian painting from settlement to the 1960s, which is still considered an important work.
Hughes’ other ground-breaking books include American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America and Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. In these, Hughes presents his own unique brand of criticism, not merely on art, but also on American politics.
His Shock of the New, the 1980 television series and book, has been widely hailed as the most readable and provocative account of the development of modern art ever written.
While much of his life was lived overseas, Hughes remained an Australian citizen and always retained a sense of the Australian larrikin in his work.
Australia has lost a great thinker today, says Ted. But his legacy, and the conversations he started will live on.