Australian art critic and writer Robert Hughes dies

FILE - This file photo taken on November 1, 1999 shows Australian author and art critic Robert Hughes arguing in Sydney. (AFP PHOTO / FILES / David HANCOCK)

SYDNEY: Influential Australian art critic, historian and writer Robert Hughes has died aged 74 in New York after a long illness, his family said Tuesday.

Hughes, whom the New York Times once proclaimed the world’s most famous art critic, passed away Monday at the Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.

“He had been very ill for some time,” said a statement from his wife Doris Downes, who was with him when he died, without giving further details.

His niece Lucy Turnbull, married to high-profile Australian politician Malcolm Turnbull, said her uncle was a “real man’s man – he was a hunter, shooter and a fisher.”

“[He had] a lifelong sense of curiosity and always wanting to know more about the world,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, adding that he worked with fervor on anything he put his mind to.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that Hughes would be “very, very sorely missed.”

“Robert Hughes was one of our finest voices,” she said.

Born in Sydney in 1938, Hughes studied arts and architecture at Sydney University. He left Australia for Britain in the early 1960s, writing for publications such as The Times and The Observer before landing a position as art critic for Time magazine in 1970, where he made his name.

Outspoken and sometimes abrasive, he went on to write “The Art of Australia,” a comprehensive review of Australian painting from settlement to the 1960s, which is still considered an important work.

Hughes further established himself with his 1980 BBC “The Shock of the New” television series and book, which has been widely hailed as one of the most provocative accounts of the development of modern art ever written.

In 1987 he published international best seller “The Fatal Shore,” which examined the harsh life of convicts during the early European settlement of Australia. It was rated in 2011 as among the top 100 non-fiction books written in English since 1923 by Time magazine, which called it “a staggering achievement.”

“I think that the work that he had to undertake to do the research to write ‘The Fatal Shore’ was extraordinary and he applied that sort of knowledge and expertise and passion to whatever task he put himself to,” Turnbull said.

While in his homeland in 1999, Hughes had a head-on car crash that nearly claimed his life and Turnbull said he never fully recovered.

“It was a life-changing event,” she said, “and climbing out of that experience was a very, very hard one, and one that was possibly never fully achieved.”

He also had to deal with his only son, Danton, committing suicide aged 34.

For those who followed his work, Hughes will be remembered for his turn of phrase.

In his obituary, The Guardian’s Michael McNay wrote that his “prose was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. Hughes was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently he was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing. Much he cared.”

“The Shock of the New” is low on theory and high on his brand of epigrammatic judgment. Van Gogh, he said, “was the hinge on which 19th-century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism.” Jackson Pollock “evoked that peculiarly American landscape experience, Whitman’s ‘vast Something,’ which was part of his natural heritage as a boy in Cody, Wyoming.”

Despite living overseas for more than 50 years, Hughes never relinquished his citizenship and became a prominent supporter of Australia’s republican movement.

John McDonald, art critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, said that Turnbull helped put his homeland on the map.

“People knew Australia often through Robert Hughes ... but his way of life, his turn of phrase, his interests were things which transcended Australia,” he wrote in the newspaper.

“We’ll look at Bob Hughes. We’ll look at the stuff that he’s written. We’ll always go back and say he was a truly great writer and somebody who, in the ranks of art critics, I think of all time, will rank very, very high.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 08, 2012, on page 16.




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