Press:Knopf Knopf (September 19, 2006)
Author Name:Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes has trained his critical eye on many major subjects: from Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Goya) to the city of Barcelona (Barcelona) to the history of his native Australia (The Fatal Shore) to modern American mores and values (The Culture of Complaint).
Now he turns that eye on perhaps his most fascinating subject: himself and the world that formed him.Things I Didn’t Know is a memoir unlike any other because Hughes is a writer unlike any other.
He analyzes his experiences the way he might examine a Van Gogh or a Picasso: he describes the surface so we can picture the end result, then he peels away the layers and scratches underneath that surface so we can understand all the beauty and tragedy and passion and history that lie below.
So when Hughes describes his relationship with his stern and distant father, an Australian Air Force hero of the First World War, we’re not simply simply told of typical father/son complications, we see the thrilling exploits of a WWI pilot, learn about the nature of heroism, get the history of modern warfare — from the air and from the trenches — and we become aware how all of this relates to the wars we’re fighting today, and we understand how Hughes’s brilliant anti-war diatribe comes from both the heart and an understanding of the horrors of combat.
The same high standards apply throughout as Hughes explores, with razor sharpness and lyrical intensity, his Catholic upbringing and Catholic school years; his development as an artist and writer and the honing of his critical skills; his growing appreciation of art; his exhilaration at leaving Australia to discover a new life in Italy and then in “swinging 60’s” London.
In each and every instance, we are not just taken on a tour of Bob Hughes’s life, we are taken on a tour of his mind — and like the perfect tour, it is educational, funny, expansive and genuinely entertaining, never veering into sentimental memories, always looking back with the right sharpness of objectivity and insight to examine a rebellious period in art, politics and sex.One of the extraordinary aspects of this book is that Hughes allows his observations of the world around him to be its focal point rather than the details of his past.
He is able to regale us with anecdotes of unknown talents and eccentrics as well as famous names such as Irwin Shaw, Robert Rauschenberg, Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Tynan, Marcel Duchamp, and many others.
He revels in the joys of sensuality and the anguish of broken relationships.
He appreciates genius and craft and deplores waste and stupidity.
The book can soar with pleasure and vitality as well as drag us into almost unbearable pain.Perhaps the most startling section of Things I Didn’t Know comes in the very opening, when Hughes describes his near fatal car crash of several years ago.
He shows not just how he survived and changed — but also how he refused to soften or weaken when facing mortality.
He begins by dealing with what was almost the end of life, and then goes on from there to show us the value of life, in particular the value of exploring and celebrating one specific and extraordinary life.
From The New Yorker
Hughes, the former art critic for Time, deftly intertwines personal and cultural history in this fiercely erudite memoir.
As the youngest son in a prominent Sydney family, he recalls a childhood marked by a growing distance from family, church, and Australia but also by early signs of his aesthetic vocation: the "noble" form of a freshly caught fish fills him with "a first stirring of desire for the Ideal." Stifled by Australia's cultural isolation, he fled to Italy and, later, London, which provides the backdrop for a savagely comic parade of sixties grotesques, from hippies ("stupefied herbivores nattering about karma") to his first wife, whose "near-programmatic infidelity" reminded him of a "deranged alley cat." Framed as a "settling of accounts" with his native country, Hughes's story occasionally becomes self-indulgently sour, but it offers a fascinating examination of artistic patrimony and the formation of a critic.
Copyright © 2006 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker
From Bookmarks Magazine
Noted art critic Robert Hughes has lived a writer's life, and here he relives his dramatic career.
Although he relates key eventshis car crash, his two unhappy marriages (and a third good one), and his son's suicideHughes focuses, instead, on the fascinating informal education that made him "completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense." Despite his description of himself, a few critics caught a whiff of elitism in Hughes's jabs at other artists and pop culture.
Others disagreed about aspects of the prose and storytelling.
To some, Hughes's discussion of 1960s London formed the heart of the memoir; the Los Angeles Times, by contrast, called it a "joyless account of druggy self-indulgence." Readers interested in the intellectual growth of an art critic, however, will find much to savor in this memoir.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
Australian-born Hughes, best-selling author and Time's chief art critic for three decades, is renowned for his wit, cutting eye, tough-mindedness backed by empathy, and robust and spiky prose.
He wrote briefly about surviving a horrific head-on collision in Goya (2003), and now, in his twelfth book, he tells the entire harrowing tale, including the crash's cruel and ludicrous aftermath, the impetus for his taking a good hard look at his past.
Hughes covers intriguing swathes of Australian history while portraying his great-great-grandfather, the Mustard King of Sydney, and his lawyer father, a heroic World War I fighter pilot.
Given the paucity of art in Sydney, it's a minor miracle that Jesuit-educated Hughes harbored artistic ambitions.
A modestly successful painter and cartoonist, he discovered his true calling when an editor abruptly drafted him to fill an art critic slot.
As Hughes keenly recounts his serendipitous Australian adventures, boldly improvised expat days in 1960s London, and illuminating sojourns in Italy, he brings each time and place vividly to life, profiles an enticing array of influential and outrageous individuals, tells uproarious stories, and offers bracing commentary on everything from Australia's xenophobia to the genius of Robert Rauschenberg to the nightmare of a terrible marriage.
So funny, candid, and incisive is Hughes' self-portrait and chronicle of the postwar art world up to 1970, readers will hope avidly for a second installment.
Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association.
All rights reserved
“Hughes’s vivid ruminations and sharp-eyed insights combine in bold, definitive strokes to yield a rich portrait of the art expert.”--Publishers Weekly (starred)“… [Hughes] brings each time and place vividly to life, profiles an enticing array of influential and outrageous individuals, tells uproarious stories, and offers bracing commentary on everything from Australia’s xenophobia to the genius of Robert Rauschenberg to the nightmare of a terrible marriage.
So funny, candid, and incisive is Hughes’ self-portrait and chronicle of postwar art world up to 1970, readers will hope avidly for a second installment.”--Booklist“A sometimes poignant, sometimes nasty, often amusing and always erudite memoir…A long, unblinking look in time’s mirror, by a writer who has spent his life mastering his subject and his craft.”--Kirkus Reviews (starred)
About the Author
Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938.
Since 1970 he has lived and worked in the United States, where until 2001 he was chief art critic for Time, to which he still contributes.
His books include The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore, Nothing if Not Critical, Barcelona, and Goya.
He is the recipient of a number of awards and prizes for his work.From the Trade Paperback edition.
From The Washington Post
Robert Hughes has been many things in his more than six and a half decades -- art critic, biographer, historian, polemicist, television commentator -- and he has done all of them exceedingly well.
As art critic for Time magazine from 1970 to 2001 (and a continuing contributor), he raised the standards of magazine criticism to new heights and demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to write serious criticism in a mass-market publication.
His survey of modern art, The Shock of the New (1981), was and remains the definitive book on the subject, though Hughes's vigorous opinions do not always sit well with certain factions in the exquisitely vicious art world.
The Fatal Shore (1987), his history of the founding of Australia, his native country, is a masterpiece of the popular historian's art.
His portrait of a great Spanish city, Barcelona (1992), and his biographical study, Goya (2003), are superb examples of their respective genres.
Now Hughes has turned his hand to autobiography, with predictably and gratifyingly rewarding results.
His has been a writer's life, and, like most such lives, it has been primarily a life of the mind.
Such drama as he has experienced -- two unhappy marriages before a lucky third one, the suicide of his 33-year-old son, a terrible auto accident that brought him within a breath of death -- certainly has been painful, but except for the accident, he devotes relatively little space to these matters in this memoir, preferring reticence over display where private business is concerned, a merciful choice in this age of self-servingly confessional memoirs that attempt to cash in on real or fancied business of the most intimate nature.
The story Hughes prefers to tell, as his title suggests, is the story of his education -- not so much of his formal education, though he does have interesting things to say about the Jesuits who taught him at an Australian boarding school, as about what he learned out in the world.
As he says of a book on which he worked when he was young, a biography of Leonardo da Vinci that he never completed: "I realized that my main impulse for writing a book was to force myself to find out about things I didn't know.
It has always been like that; the reason for this memoir is the same, to excavate and bring into the light things I had forgotten or repressed, along with the stuff that remained at the front of my awareness.
Otherwise, why do it at all?" Hughes's rise to the eminence he now enjoys did not come easily and began in somewhat unlikely circumstances.
His family lived in Sydney and was rather prosperous, but the familial environment was not conducive to the artistic interests that eventually became his life's preoccupation.
Born in 1938, he was by a dozen years the youngest of his parents' four children.
He never really knew his father, who died when he was 12 but whose influence on him nonetheless was great: "This righteous and inflexible man, a brave warrior but not a professional soldier, a war hero who shot down eleven German planes in the First World War, a fiercely orthodox Catholic, and an intense patriot, determined the direction and conditions of my life.
It was at least partly in reaction against him, and what he stood for, that I became an expatriate, a political skeptic, an atheist, a liberal, a voluptuary, and, in most ways, a disappointment to the ethos he lived by.
And, perhaps no more creditable than these, a writer about art." The young Hughes's "introduction to the visual arts" began with cartoons in Punch, the British humor magazine, and a series of illustrated children's books, but it wasn't until he was 15 that a wise teacher got him thinking about the nature of art, and it wasn't until more than a decade later that the full dimensions of his calling were revealed to him.
He was in Italy, contemplating "a quite staggeringly complicated and ambitious [14th-century] painting" known as the Maestà, by Duccio di Buoninsegna: "Art, I now realized, was the symbolic discourse that truly reached into me -- though the art I had seen and come to know in Australia had only done this intermittently and weakly.
It wasn't a question of confusing art with religion, or trying to make a religion out of art.
As some people are tone-deaf, I was religion-deaf, and in fact I would have thought it a misuse, even a debasement, of a work of art to turn it into a mere ancillary, a signpost to some imagined, hoped-for, but illusory experience of God.
But I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organized landscape a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me -- but that I had never received." Earlier, from the Jesuits, Hughes had learned that "no matter what the demands of 'self-expression' may be, nothing is anything without fully articulate, conscious form." This conviction, coupled with his passionate belief in the transcendent possibilities of art, permitted Hughes to evolve over the years into modern art's most demanding critic.
Deeply sympathetic to "the hostile, nervy freedom from parental and religious authority embodied by Surrealism," he nevertheless insisted that art had to be more than "new" to be good, and over the years he came to be a fierce opponent of the faddism to which the art world is so susceptible.
He was strongly influenced by the writing of Kenneth Clark, Cyril Connolly and, especially, George Orwell, whose "direct use of the English language, in exposition and in argument," and whose willingness to follow his own nose he emulated to obvious and happy effect.
He started writing about art in Australia in the late 1950s for the Observer, "a fortnightly journal of political and cultural opinion modeled on the English Spectator," and that is when his education really began.
By fortunate coincidence, it was a moment when Australian art, long under the thumb of a conservative Old Guard, began to take tentative steps toward independence and originality, but not much of it was very good, and Hughes had begun to sense "a deep dysfunction in my Australian nature.
I didn't feel altogether at home either in the bush or on the beach." He became friends with the distinguished writer Alan Moorehead, best known as the author of The White Nile and The Blue Nile, "my beau ideal of a popular historian," and in time, no doubt, his model for the writing of The Fatal Shore.
Moorehead told him in 1962 that "I would have to leave Australia, just as he had done, if my work was ever to go anywhere." Moorehead said: "If you stay here another ten years, Australia will still be a very interesting place.
But you will have become a bore, a village explainer." So with little to his credit except letters of introduction from Moorehead and a bit of money, Hughes headed for the United States and then for London, where "I knew nobody and I felt lost -- a provincial Australian in a place that still, in 1964, tended to look down on Australians." He began to educate himself at the city's great museums, though, and then took up Moorehead's offer to use his house at Porto Ercole, in Italy.
His months in that country left him "more at ease in the world and filled with delight at what its human and inanimate contents could mean, say, and create," and when he returned to London in the mid-1960s, he was far better equipped to fit in and find work.
He also arrived in London just as the 1960s were turning into the Sixties.
He seems to have done his share of dope and swinging, and he married a woman who was the embodiment of Sixties excess, but he never fell for the "collective self-importance" of the "London underground" with its "adoration of the unbridled truth of the self." He "never for a moment believed the promises of Revolution Now that were floating about -- all that messianic drivel about changing the world by dropping out of it," and he "sensed then, and know with a fair degree of certainty now, that it is an illusion to suppose that sexual promiscuity helps create personal freedom.
There is a huge difference between the condition of freedom and that of accepting no responsibilities to anyone." Most important for the career that was to follow, he rejected "the idea that there was something inherently repressive about old art, as though the past were a dead weight that new art, young art, had to shake off." He learned that "the past is pervasive; it seeps into everything; it is the very air that artists and their public breathe," and he lost for good "a belief in the potency of the avant-garde." He writes: "I have never regained it, and today, looking at the ever-more-feeble efforts on the part of the art world to designate its latest products as 'cutting-edge,' 'edgy,' 'radical,' etcetera, I am not in the least sorry to have lost it.
Some new works of art have value of some kind or another.
Others, the majority, have little or none.
But newness as such, in art, is never a value." So in 1969, when Time invited him to try out for the position of art critic, he was ready.
It was, as he says, still a more or less serious magazine then and it paid far more attention to books and the arts than it does now.
Though Hughes is more generous to its founder, Henry Luce, than I would be, he is right to credit its managing editor at the time, Henry Grunwald, with keeping its "cultural priorities" straight.
The newsmagazines mattered then in ways they no longer do, and in his three decades at Time, Hughes had much to do with the reputation it enjoyed.
Hughes is, by his own rather defiant declaration, "completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense." He is, "after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today." He quite properly refuses to apologize for this: "I am no democrat in the field of the arts, the only area -- other than sports -- in which human inequality can be displayed and celebrated without doing social harm." How right he is, and how vigorously he argues his case -- which is to say the case for informed judgment independent of fashion -- in this splendid book.
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post.
All Rights Reserved.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
chapter one A Bloody Expat The most extreme change in my life occurred, out of a blue sky, on the 30th of May, 1999, a little short of my sixty-first birthday.
I was in Western Australia, where I had been making a TV series about my native country.
I had taken a couple of days off, and chosen to spend them fishing off the shore of a resort named Eco Beach with a friend, Danny O’Sullivan, a professional guide.
We went after small offshore tuna, with fly rods, in an open skiff.
It had been a wonderful day: fish breaking everywhere, fighting fiercely when hooked, and one—a small bluefin, about twenty pounds—kept to be eaten later with the crew in Broome.
Now, after a nap, I was on my way back to the Northern Highway, which parallels the huge flat biscuit of a coast where the desert breaks off into the Indian Ocean.
After about ten kilometers, the red dirt road from Eco Beach ended in a cattle gate.
I stopped short of it, got out of the car, unhooked the latching chain, swung the gate open.
I got back in the car, drove through, stopped again, got out, and closed the gate behind me.
Then I hopped back in the car again and drove out onto the tar and concrete of the Great Northern Highway, cautiously looking both ways in the bright, almost horizontal evening light.
No road trains galloping toward me: nothing except emptiness.
I turned left, heading north for Broome, on the left side of the road, as people have in Australia ever since 1815, when its colonial governor, an autocratic laird named Lachlan Macquarie, decreed that Australians must henceforth ride and drive on the same side as people did in his native Scotland.
It was still daylight, but only just.
I flipped my lights on.
There was no crash, no impact, no pain.
It was as though nothing had happened.
I just drove off the edge of the world, feeling nothing.
I do not know how fast I was going.
I am not a fast driver, or in any way a daring one.
Driving has never been second nature to me.
I am pawky, old-maidish, behind the wheel.
But I collided, head-on, with another car, a Holden Commodore with two people in the front seat and one in the back.
It was dusk, about 6:30 p.m.
This was the first auto accident I ever had in my life, and I retain absolutely no memory of it.
Try as I may, I can dredge nothing up, not even the memory of fear.
The slate is wiped clean, as by a damp rag.
I was probably on the wrong (that is, the right-hand) side of the road, over the yellow line—though not very far over.
I say “probably” because, at my trial a year later, the magistrate did not find that there was enough evidence to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that I had been.
The Commodore was coming on at some 90 m.p.h., possibly more.
I was approaching it at about 50 m.p.h..
Things happen very quickly when two cars have a closing speed of more than 130 m.p.h.
It only takes a second for them to get seventy feet closer to one another.
No matter how hard you hit the brakes, there isn’t much you can do.
We plowed straight into one another, Commodore registered 7ex 954 into Nissan Pulsar registered 9 yr 650: two red cars in the desert, driver’s side to driver’s side, right headlamp to right headlamp.
I have no memory of this.
From the moment of impact for weeks to come, I would have no short-term memory of anything.
All I know about the actual collision, until after almost a year, when I saw the remains of my rented car in a junkyard in Broome, is what I was told by others.
The other car spun off the highway, skidded down a shallow dirt slope, and ended up half-hidden in the low desert scrub.
Its three occupants were injured, two not seriously.
Darren William Kelly, thirty-two, the driver, had just come off a stint working on a fishing boat and was heading south to Port Hedland to find any work he could get.
He had a broken tibia.
Colin Craig Bowe, thirty-six, a builder’s laborer, was riding in the front seat and sustained a broken ankle.
Darryn George Bennett, twenty-four, had been working as a deckhand on the same boat as Kelly, the True Blue.
Kelly and Bowe were mates; they had known each other for two years.
Neither had known Bennett before.
He had heard they were driving south to Port Hedland, and he asked for a ride.
He was a young itinerant worker in his midtwenties, whose main skill was bricklaying.
Their encounter with the world of writing only added to their misfortunes.
All three were addicts and part-time drug dealers.
At the moment of the crash, Bennett, in the backseat, was rolling a “cone” of marijuana, a joint.
It may or may not have been the first one to be smoked on what was meant to be a thousand-kilometer drive south.
In any case, they had things in common.
They had all done jail time.
They were young working-class men living now on that side of the law, now on this: sometimes feral, sometimes bewildered, seldom knowing what the next month, let alone the next birthday, would bring.
Not long after he had recovered from the injuries of the collision, Bennett tried to tear the face off an enemy in a bar with a broken bottle.
Bowe, as soon as his injuries had healed, attempted an armed robbery, but was arrested, tried, and sentenced to ten years in jail.
Bennett was by far the worst hurt of the three.
The impact catapulted him forward against the restraint of the seat belt and gave him a perforated bowel.
He had no skeletal damage.
All three of them were able to struggle out of the wreck of the Commodore, which had not rolled over.
The effort of doing so was agonizing for Bennett, who collapsed on the verge of the road, his guts flooded with pain.
If the Commodore was badly smashed up, my Nissan Pulsar was an inchoate mass of red metal and broken glass, barely recognizable as having once been a car.
When at last I saw it in Broome on the eve of my trial, eleven months later, I couldn’t see how a cockroach could have survived that wreck, let alone a human being.
The car had telescoped.
The driver’s seat had slammed forward, pinning me against the steering wheel, which was twisted out of shape by the impact of my body, nearly impaling me on the steering column.
Much of the driver’s side of the Pulsar’s body had been ripped away, whether by the initial impact or, later, by the hydraulic tools used by the fire brigade and ambulance crew in their long struggle to free me from the wreckage.
It looked like a half-car.
It was as though the fat, giant foot of God from the old Monty Python graphics had stamped on it and ground it into the concrete.
Later, I would make derogatory noises about “that piece of Jap shit” I’d been driving.
I was wrong, of course.
The damage had saved my life: the gradual collapse and telescoping of the Nissan’s body, compressed into milliseconds, had absorbed and dissipated far more of the impact energy than a more rigid frame could have done.
Now it was folded around me like crude origami.
I could scarcely move a finger.
Trapped, intermittently conscious, deep in shock and bloodier than Banquo, I had only the vaguest notion of what had happened to me.
Whatever it might have been, it was far beyond my experience.
I did not recognize my own injuries, and had no idea how bad they were.
As it turned out, they were bad enough.
Under extreme impact, bones may not break neatly.
They can explode into fragments, like a cookie hit by a hammer, and that’s what happened to several of mine.
The catalog of trauma turned out to be long.
Most of it was concentrated on the right-hand side of my body—the side that bore the brunt of the collision.
As the front of the Nissan collapsed, my right foot was forced through the floor and doubled underneath me; hours later, when my rescuers were at last able to get a partial glimpse of it, they thought the whole foot had been sheared off at the ankle.
The chief leg bones below my right knee, the tibia and the fibula, were broken into five pieces.
The knee structure was more or less intact, but my right femur, or thigh bone, was broken twice, and the ball joint that connected it to my hip was damaged.
Four ribs on my right side had snapped and their sharp ends had driven through the tissue of my lungs, lacerating them and causing pneumothorax, a deflation of the lungs and the dangerous escape of air into the chest cavity.
My right collarbone and my sternum were broken.
The once rigid frame of my chest had turned wobbly, its structural integrity gone, like a crushed birdcage.
My right arm was a wreck—the elbow joint had taken some of the direct impact, and its bones were now a mosaic of breakages.
But I am left-handed, and the left arm was in better shape, except for the hand, which had been (in the expressive technical term used by doctors) “de-gloved,” stripped of its skin and much of the muscular structure around the thumb.
But I had been lucky.
Almost all the damage was skeletal.
The internal soft tissues, liver, spleen, heart, were undamaged, or at worst merely bruised and shocked.
My brain was intact—although it wasn’t working very well—and the most important part of my bone structure, the spine, was untouched.
That was a near miracle.
Spines go out of service all too easily.
The merest hairline crack in the spine can turn a healthy, reasonably athletic man into a paralyzed cripple: this is what happened to poor Christopher Reeve, the former Superman, in a fall from a horse, and it eventually killed him.
The idea of being what specialists laconically call a “high quad”—paraplegic from the neck down, unable even to write your own end by loading a shotgun and sticking its muzzle in your mouth—has always appalled me.
But I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to be afraid of that.
What I was afraid of, a...
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