Robert Hughes dies, aged 74

Robert Hughes, the lauded art critic, writer and television documentary maker, has died.

Robert Hughes, the lauded art critic, writer and television documentary maker, died this Monday, aged 74, after a long battle with illness.

In 1980, the success of his BBC documentary, the Shock of the New, made Hughes’ bullish countenance a familiar sight in British living rooms. This was a visage of belligerence from a man unafraid to criticse what he believed to be the warts of the art world that stared at him from beneath the absence of the king’s clothes.

At times delightfully vitriolic, but always articulate and erudite, his polemics included assaults on everything from postmodernism to the increasing plutocracy of the art world. These rare qualities won him enemies, but also many admirers, the New Statesman amongst them. The pages in our archive hold many praising reviews and, on one occasion, Andrew Billen goes as far as to call him “the newspaper world’s greatest art critic.”

Australian by birth, and regarded by many of his natives as a National Treasure, he moved to Europe in 1964, writing in London for a time, before finally settling in New York. He worked for a host of newspapers and broadcasters, along the way collecting many awards for his documentaries, books and articles.

Yet his life was not without tragedy, his father died when he was only 12 and his son killed himself at the age of 34. In 1999 Hughes was involved in a near fatal car crash, from which he never fully recovered. In 2000 Christopher Spenser, producer of Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (a documentary created in response to Hughes’ prize winning historical text, The Fatal Shore), wrote for the New Statesman about the evening of the accident, when he was waiting for Hughes to return from a fishing trip. With a shake of his head at the pettiness the drama surrounding the following court case, he praises ‘Bob’s’ bravery and “rich, original voice”.

Whether one holds Hughes' memory with love or hatred, it is with little controversy that it can be said that Monday saw the passing of the man who has been called “the world's most famous art critic.”

Robert Hughes was a fan of Lucian Freud (Image: Getty)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump