ROBERT Hughes was always larger than life. His personality was so forceful that he dominated every gathering in which he took part, from a conference to a casual lunch. He was witty, irascible, opinionated and impatient with fools. Although everyone was his audience, he had a gift for friendship that put people at their ease.
Hughes was one of a generation of great expatriate intellectuals, who had many characteristics in common. Like Barry Humphries, Hughes had the knack of shooting down opponents with one well-turned barb. Like Clive James, he had a lifelong love affair with the English language, no less obvious in a small magazine article than in a large book. Like Germaine Greer, he had a temper and an ego that occasionally alienated his fans.
He was always destined for success, but he shot to worldwide prominence with the television series The Shock of the New (1980). It was the ideal successor to the original art mega-series, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969). Hughes picked up the story where Clark had left off, displaying his gift for the well-turned one-liner.
Although most people probably got to know Hughes through his appearances on TV, he will be remembered for his writing. His early Art of Australia (1966) was a sparkling read, although of dubious value as art history. After spending 10 years as art critic for Time magazine in New York, the book The Shock of the New (1980) was more sure-footed and became a worldwide hit.
His masterpiece is undoubtedly The Fatal Shore (1987), a monumental examination of the early years of Australian settlement. For Hughes this project was a way of paying his dues to Australia. It surprised him that it became an international bestseller, making the small world of colonial history into a topic of global interest.
The Fatal Shore made Hughes one of Australia’s favourite sons. He sacrificed that high esteem after being catastrophically injured in a car accident south of Broome, in 1999. While sympathies were running high, he spoke and acted in a brazen, arrogant manner and was widely criticised. He returned to the United States denouncing Australia and swearing never to return.
But return he did, and all was forgiven and forgotten. The only problem was the state of his health, which had been permanently shaken by the injuries received in the car crash.
For a man like Hughes it was hard to grow old, let alone grow old as an invalid.
A man’s man and a ladies’ man, he was always the centre of attention. His views were forthright, and expressed with astonishing eloquence. He wrote with intelligence and integrity, and brought a literary flair to the much-maligned discipline of art criticism.
He will be remembered, quite simply, as one of Australia’s finest writers.
John McDonald is a long-serving art critic for Fairfax.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.