Robert Hughes On Nostalgia, Art and Solitude


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.”

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14 Responses to Robert Hughes On Nostalgia, Art and Solitude

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent post – Hughes is much missed as a commentator and I loved the fact that he was so opinionated and took no prisoners! (I suspect I might have hated him in real life!)

    • thank you. I have to admit to having a fondness for belligerent characters, I find them kind of amusing. before he lost the plot towards the end, Gore Vidal was very entertaining in terms of caustic one-liners. and Hughes certainly had a barbed tongue when he wanted to but his generosity to artists he liked (and even those he didn’t) is often overlooked. I think he would’ve been a good man to have a drink with, once you got past the initial cantankerous image.

  2. Beautiful, both your capture and Hughes. I will check him out. Thanks for a moving piece. Although I return to memory, I use it as a source, and not as a nostalgic interlude. As far as Hughes not understanding “trash” sometimes it is as necessary as high brow art, culture, and literature. “Discerning guttersnipes!”

    • thank you, he’s a really great writer and The Shock of the New is essential viewing. I agree with you re memory. it’s a source of comfort, pain, relationships and so on obviously but it’s also a scrapyard to dip into. it’s when, as I’ve encountered quite a bit, people get stuck there to the detriment of their lives now that it becomes a problem.
      he’s very enlightening too on the question of cultural ‘trash’ (I disagree with some of what he says but he definitely foretold the flood). he has an interesting and very honest passage about this,
      “For of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails, or someone tying a Bimini hitch that won’t slip. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, 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, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist kitsch, no matter how much the demos loves it. To me, it is a form of manufactured tyranny.”

  3. Enjoyed your differentiating views on nostalgia. That first Hughes passage is indeed haunting. And the second brings up the question, how quickly does valuing solitude lead one into (too) actively engaging nostalgia, to the point that that opportunity for nostalgic reverie and concentration on memory becomes the primary value of the solitude in the first place? Thanks for the post.

    • I think I was maybe a bit absolutist sounding about Nostalgia, contemplating the past is obviously an inescapable part of any person’s life and psyche and an essential part of any writing process (to which solitude is crucial I think). it makes us who we are and the mood itself is an intriguing one to try and capture, given the melancholy therein. it’s when people get trapped in the past and especially a past that didn’t really happen, I draw the line. admittedly all memories are, to an extent, a fiction but with a reasonable degree of scepticism this isn’t usually a problem. I meet old schoolfriends and sometimes there’s a degree of arrested development that seems to me just really sad. it’s like nostalgia as paralysis. in a way, such a level of obsession with memory has proved great for literature, I’m thinking of Proust or Joyce in exile in Europe rebuilding the Dublin of his youth in his head. but for the individuals concerned, it wasn’t healthy, Proust broke himself physically and Joyce wasn’t the most mentally stable (or sober) of people. solitude seems an unavoidable condition for any writer, if only during the writing process, but the recollection of the recent past, writing about external stimuli in the present or speculative fiction about the future seems equally valid methods. I do agree with Bukowski’s assertion that it is fundamentally important to have lived, and lived fully, for a period of time before beginning to write and that is not always the case. in which case, you tend to find people being nostalgic for what they wished had happened rather than what did. perhaps that’s what all nostalgia is.


  5. Great post! Although I have not read the referred to text, I find that the ideas resonate a lot with my own. I especially like the distinction that is set up between the unhealthy and healthy nostalgia. Aside from using the past to better inform or remind the present self of who they are (ought to be), I think that a lot depends on the memory being recalled and the position of the present in comparison to that memory. Personally, I fall into bouts of nostalgia all the time. My life has been very episodic, and the episodes have been short. I move around a lot. Because of this, even recent memories lend themselves to nostalgic reflection. I believe that the self, if anything at all, is highly effected by the spaces we inhabit –those spaces being very complex of course (natural features, societal, climate, etc.). When we leave any space then, we put a cap on what we might have otherwise been should we have chosen to stay. We yearn for, more than place or time, the person that we are not anymore. This is where the healthy/unhealthy comes in. We can either brood or mourn the loss of that self, or we can allow the memory of that self –the strong, nostalgia powered memory –to have a positive effect on our present, working self.

    I love that you ended with solitude. I am often alone. When I lived in Colorado, there were weeks on end that I spoke to no one. I fished, though, everyday! The excerpts on fishing above are beautiful, conveying sentiments I had never really found the words to convey. Thank you for the post!

  6. thank you Johannes. those are interesting points. I think perhaps my aversion to nostalgia is that I’m deeply nostalgic beneath the surface, maybe that’s why when I see it in others I get unsettled. the way sometimes recovering addicts become puritanical. you’re right, it isn’t a problem (indeed it’s a rich mine of creativity) unless it brings us to a permanent halt. and I agree completely that it’s the person you brood or mourn for. I think this about lost loves. how after many years of having the other person exist as memories and desires in your head, you meet again and you’ve both inevitably changed (sometimes for better or worse). there are elements that remain the same and I dont think it’s possible to change entirely but things are never quite as you’ve envisaged, partly because memory is fiction or wishful thinking at times. it’s like Heraclitus said, you can’t step in the same river twice. not just because the river has changed but because you have. perhaps that’s what nostalgia is; an attempt, with varying degrees of factuality, to cling or drop an anchor amidst the change and flux of life.

  7. I love that image of the river. In a couple of my posts about homesickness and nostalgia, I come to that same conclusion, but never quite as clearly and beautifully as Heraclitus did (another new name for me to go off and read). Nostalgia is certainly a drug at times, and addiction to it is a treacherous path. We could quit, I suppose, but where is the fun in that? As a writer, nostalgia is the one drug I can’t give up. The coffee and the cigarettes help too.

  8. Pingback: Sunday Reading | Wait until next year

  9. decayetude says:

    Great blog, Darran; thx for following mine. I love “Hunger” too:)Steve

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