The late Robert Hughes is best known perhaps for his wonderful television series on modern art The Shock of the New (available to watch in its entirety on UbuWeb). His writing may be slightly less well-known but it is no less brilliant; whether his studies of Goya, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, of Heaven and Hell in Western Art or his introduction to Barcelona, which made me fall in love with that glorious Catalan city before I’d set foot there. His brutal and haunting account of the birth of Australia The Fatal Shore and his highlighting of art, folklore and poetry such as Barcroft Boake’s Where the Dead Men Lie make Nick Cave, for one, seem not quite as atypical an Australian. Contrary to popular opinion, there were other Australias and they were dark.
I’ve recently been reading Hughes’ Things I Didn’t Know which, though I’d avoided it due to an aversion to the prevailing grief tourism of childhood memoirs, is a characteristically lucid, eloquent and open-hearted book. Hughes was an outsider in the sense he was too much of a barrel-chested Antipodean for the mouth full of marbles British arts establishment and too much of a rootless cosmopolitan for the Australian scene. In fact you get the sense he was deliberately mistranslated by both. Alfred de Musset’s “Great artists have no country” may have been partially true, in terms of great art critics it was spot on. Hughes was accused of being abrasive when he was a very generous and open-minded critic. Even when he was damning, and he had a merciless turn of phrase, he was never close-minded. He was accused of being elitist simply because he trusted and respected his audience enough to assume they had more than an amoebic brain capacity (a trust that Waldemar Januszczak and co sorely lack). Hughes’ writing is actually deceptively accessible whilst being heavyweight. He had little time for trash admittedly; if he had one failing, it was in having insufficient interest in why people like trash. But then life is short and there seems barely enough time for the things of worth. When Hughes discussed art, you didn’t get the sense he was ever condescending or hectoring, rather he was enthusing about and sharing something he genuinely loved (or indeed hated). It was as if a fellow discerning guttersnipe had sneaked in the back door and was unloading the contents of High Art to the rest of us.
There are some remarkably poignant reminiscences in Hughes’ memoir (the most evocative accounts of childhood I’ve read since James Kelman’s fictionalised Kieron Smith, boy). Sometimes they seem almost magical, for example when he catches a fish “surrounded by gaping envious small boys in whose republic I was suddenly and briefly cock of the walk… [it] was by far the biggest fish I had ever caught. Its azure, silver and obsidian colors faded to lead. I thought of the soul’s departure from the body… Walking back home, I accosted two old ladies and showed them my fish. “Oh how wonderful,” one of them said in a thin tone of ill-disguised disgust. I kept stopping and opening the bag to peer inside. It was there. A hundred yards later I looked again and it was still there. It always will be.”
For a long time, I’ve been against the idea of nostalgia. I didn’t particularly enjoy school and find the commonly-held self-defeating assertion that the best years are the teenage ones laughable were it not so grim a view. Nostalgia seems to be an acceptance that the now is less worthy of our attention than the gone, which seems something of a cop-out or surrender. We do ourselves an injustice. My memory is sufficiently clear-sighted to know that the good old days are overrated and those who live there are doing so by some not entirely healthy suspension of disbelief. The worship of the past is the death of the present or, at the very least, an admission of its failure. Yet Hughes’ writing seems nostalgic in the best sense, containing the sweet joyous ache of melancholy for what has been lost that might inform who we are now, reawakening the things we had forgotten rather than cling to and not trapped in the past or even yearning for it but viewing it by telescope from a distant shore.
The most interesting parts of the memoir come when Hughes connects his life to the art he loves. It’s a intriguing symbiotic relationship; he’ll see a painting that reminds him of a person or place from the past but also his early experiences growing up have left him attracted or susceptible to certain types and troupes of art. The Limbourg brothers diabolical illustrations to Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry recall the fiery lectures his Jesuit teachers delivered. The movement of Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash brings back the image of running through a cemetery alongside his little dog Rikki. The calligraphy of Ogata Korin (see above) reminds him of making model biplanes with Japanese paper with his pilot father, who in turn he thinks of as the kind of celestial Futurist aviator envisaged by Apollinaire. The most touching or perhaps disturbing early scene is learning of his father’s death, while away at boarding school. It’s an excerpt that makes me dread feeling anything remotely that harrowing and, at the same time, indulgently think, ‘jesus christ, to be able to write that well.’
“Out I went, into the long colonnade of sandstone arches, and down at the end, near the vanishing point, I saw my twenty-three-year-old brother Geoffrey. As I looked at him, his face, uncannily, came apart like tissue paper. He was weeping uncontrollably. Then I knew. Ever since, I have associated colonnades and their bars of shadow with memory and loss, and a miserable sort of shattered yearning: an image cluster that, long before I went to Italy, helped me to understand Giorgio de Chirico.”
I’ll leave you with an extract from the book where he writes of the joys of solitude, a state we are taught to avoid and fear in this social network-obsessed, but really just hyper-narcissistic and increasingly infantile, age:
“The best thing fishing taught me, I think, was how to be alone. Without this ability no writer can really survive or work, and there is a strong relationship between the activity of the fisherman, letting his line down into unknown depths in the hope of catching an unseen prey (which may be worth keeping, or may not) and that of a writer trolling his memory and reflections for unexpected jags and jerks of association. O beata solitudo – o sola beatudo! Enforced solitude, as in solitary confinement, is a terrible and disorienting punishment, but freely chosen solitude is an immense blessing. To be out of the rattle and clang of quotidian life, to be away from the garbage of other people’s amusements and the overflow of their unwanted subjectivities, is the essential escape. Solitude is, beyond question, one of the world’s great gifts and an indispensable aid to creativity, no matter what level that creation may be hatched at. Our culture puts enormous emphasis on ‘socialization,’ on the supposedly supreme virtues of establishing close relations with others: the psychologically ‘successful’ person is less an individual than a citizen, linked by a hundred cords and filaments to his or her fellow-humans and discovering fulfillment in relations with others. This belief becomes coercive, and in many tyrannous and even morbid, in a society like the United States, with its accursed, anodyne cults of togetherness. But perhaps as the psychiatrist Anthony Storr pointed out, solitude may be a greater and more benign motor of creativity in adult life than any number of family relations, love affairs, group identifications, or friendships. We are continually beleaguered by the promise of what is in fact a false life, based on unnecessary reactions to external stimuli. Inside every writer, to paraphrase the well-worn mot of Cyril Connolly, an only child is wildly signaling to be let out. “No man will ever unfold the capacities of his own intellect,” wrote Thomas De Quincey, “who does not at least checker his life with solitude.”
“So fishing contributed to an important lesson of my life – how to be alone. I still think solitude is one of the world’s great gifts. “Se sei solo,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “sarai tutto tuo” – if you are alone, you are entirely your own man.”