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.”