Robert Hughes: People's critic, renaissance man

The art historian renowned for his acerbic wit and a personal life blighted by tragedy, has died aged 74

Sydney

Australia is mourning the loss of possibly its greatest public intellectual, the art critic, historian and bon viveur Robert Hughes, who wrote a definitive account of his country's convict era and helped to make modern art accessible to the wider public.

Hughes, who was 74, died in New York, which had been his home since he became Time magazine's art critic in the 1970s. Despite decades overseas, and a sometimes troubled relationship with his birthplace, the outspoken and combative Hughes remained a frequent visitor. He was also a leading figure in the failed campaign in the late 1990s to turn Australia into a republic.

Yesterday he was hailed as a Renaissance man whose insight and influence went far beyond the art world. The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard led the tributes, calling Hughes "one of our finest voices [who] through his writing and public role … defined the artistic taste of a generation of educated Australians".

He was certainly precocious, writing a well-regarded history of Australian art while still in his 20s. Not long afterwards, Mr Hughes quit Australia – where he had been working as a cartoonist and art critic – for London and then New York. In the latter city, he was a larger than life figure, riding around on a motorbike and attending parties with a cockatoo on his shoulder, according to The New York Times.

In 1980 he made the acclaimed BBC television series The Shock of the New, about the development of modern art, which evolved into a book with the same title. One of his friends, Catharine Lumby, an author and academic, said: "He was elitist when it came to evaluating art but he was absolutely egalitarian when it came to communicating why certain works mattered."

Fellow critics yesterday praised not only his brilliant and often acerbic reviews – which led to him being punched by an artist on at least one occasion – but also his gift for language. "Not just the fact that he could always pluck some amazing word out of the air [but] that he would find something that probably hadn't been used since the days of Alexander Pope and slip it in," said John McDonald, art critic for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Hughes – who loathed conceptual artists such as Damien Hirst – wrote more than a dozen books, but by far the most famous was his international best-seller The Fatal Shore, an account of the white settlement of Australia. Time called it a "staggering achievement", and rated it among the top 100 non-fiction works since 1923.

Married three times, Hughes had one child, Danton, who committed suicide in 2002, aged 34. Father and son, a sculptor, had been estranged for years. In an interview four years later, Hughes called Danton "the big failure of my emotional life".

A keen fisherman, he never fully recovered from a car accident during a fishing trip to western Australia in 1999, which nearly killed him and led to a conviction for dangerous driving. Hughes branded the occupants of a car with which he collided "low-life scum", later alleging they had tried to extort money from him. So bitter was he about the resulting media storm that he remarked: "You can tow Australia out to sea and sink it, for all I care." He later retracted the comment. Ms Gillard said he would be "sorely missed".

Robert Hughes on...

Modernism "it will be buoyed up by an immense and irrational hope shared, as cultural movements tend to be, by a small number of like-minded people who only have the haziest notion of, and generally rather despise, what the majorities around them want"

Rembrandt "It is the work of his old age that one most admires: that intimate, unflinching scrutiny of his own sagging, lined and bloated features, with the light shining from the potato nose and the thick paint: the face of a master, the face of a failure and a bankrupt"

Cezanne "The idea that doubt can be heroic, if it is locked into a structure as grand as that of the paintings of Cezanne's old age, is one of the keys to our century. A touchstone of modernity itself"

Francis Bacon "This painter of buggery, sadism, dread and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late 20th-century England, perhaps in all the world"

Damien Hirst "What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor