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Robert Hughes at the podium in 1996.

Robert Hughes
The Fatal Shore

Robert Hughes
The Shock of the New
1991, revised edition

Robert Hughes
Culture of Complaint
Critical Hell
by Benjamin Genocchio

Andrew Riemer, Robert Hughes, 180 pp., Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, AUD$19.95

The last year has proven a disquieting time for Robert Hughes, and even more worrisome for those who admire his wit and flare.

First there was his brush with death on a lonely west Australian road; the agony of a court case during which Hughes completely disgraced himself by publicly insulting the plaintiffs then the magistrate; the breakdown of his second marriage; the hostile reception of his television series on Australian society and, as if that were not enough, the suicide of his only son, Danton.

It's a dismaying story of epic proportions, one worthy of the title of Hughes's fourth and arguably best book, The Fatal Shore.

Hughes has been through a private hell, of that I have no doubt, yet whatever sympathy he may have found for his plight evaporated earlier this year after the reprinting in the Australian press of a New York Times interview in which it was reported that Hughes, breaking off the interview to take a phone call, remarked "They could tow Australia out to sea and sink it for all I care."

The interview led to another round of bitter controversy and insults, with Hughes's friends blaming the car accident and drug therapy for his outbursts and his detractors pointing, with justification, to his bald egotism. Hughes, for many, had become like the Biblical Job without the humility.

How Hughes' enviable reputation as a bon vivant and raconteur collapsed into the kind of sad caricature of Australian ugliness that he once took such relish in decrying, and to which he was a most eloquent opponent in the 1950s, is the erstwhile theme of Andrew Riemer's new book, Robert Hughes [which has so far been published only in Australia].

Although weighed towards a discussion of Hughes' writing, and thus more of a long essay on his intellectual trajectory than a biography, there are several anecdotes of Hughes' early life here that give us insight into the fall from grace of this gifted critic, once Australia's loudest cultural voice.

Riemer, a former literature academic, newspaper book reviewer and friend of Hughes, begins his book with a curious reproduction of a caricature of a devil given to him by Hughes as a birthday card in the late 1950s. A small black and white sketch of a leering devil dangling a key on a string with a lethal pitch fork hidden behind his back, the drawing is symptomatic for Riemer of what he regards as Hughes' longstanding yet oddly repressed religiosity, a theme that has often been remarked upon in relation to Hughes' writings and which Riemer maintains, convincingly in my view, can be traced back to his Jesuit schooling at Saint Ignatius College in Sydney.

There is little doubt Hughes' Jesuit education shaped his attitudes and beliefs (his Manichean view of the world is almost certainly a product of this early experience), or that more than an occasional gesture toward the spiritual authority of artworks runs through his writings. But what Riemer doesn't pick up on in his haste to trace this apparent continuity of belief in the content of Hughes' writings, which become increasingly reactionary as he gets more and more despondent about the state of contemporary art, is that it is not only the content of his writings that is consistent but the form.

What is revealing about Hughes' devilish sketch is not so much its religious dimension, in my view, as the fact that it is a caricature -- a genre that has held a strong and enduring attraction for him.

While we tend to think of Hughes mainly as a writer these days, it is often forgotten that he began his creative career as an artist drawing cartoons for the Sydney University newspaper Honi Soit, where he met Riemer, while his first job after leaving university was as a cartoonist for the Sydney Telegraph.

Some of his best writings are also devoted to great American caricaturists like Norman Rockwell and Saul Steinberg while back in Australia he continues to count among his few friends the well-known caricaturist Bill Leak. To add weight to this argument let us not forget that his favorite artist is Goya.

Caricature is the art of creating an exaggerated representation, one that is easily identifiable and thus quickly absorbable. This is a sketchy definition, I admit, but it is one that seems to characterize quite accurately Hughes' style of writing (and perhaps accounts for its popularity and accessibility), in which the author paints his pictures with a very broad brush. Swinging from extreme highs to extreme lows, Hughes is an author of excess and amplitude -- exaggerating or reducing artists or issues to either being good or bad, black or white (the cartoonist's mode once again) through the use of unstrained hyperbole and pompous rhetorical flourishes.

If you look at Hughes' writings as essentially caricatures you can also begin to understand his apparently eclectic choice of subject matter. Hughes is the sort of writer that needs dramatic oppositions to write, to create a drama worthy of his lust for extremes. Taking a subject, he seizes on the drama of the opposition -- whether it is the battle of the heroic avant-garde against the forces of tradition in Shock of the New, images of angels and devils in Heaven and Hell in Western Art, or the excesses of minorities and the religious right -- each using art for political purposes -- in Culture of Complaint.

Hughes' love of exaggeration often leads to distortion, as in the luridly evocative prose of a colonial hell in The Fatal Shore, but it also gives him a very distinctive voice. When you open a book by Hughes you know exactly who is speaking, the broad definitive statements bellowing out at you from the page like a priest thumping the altar. This is Hughes at his best, assuming the role of a passionate advocate one minute, an angry and combative critic spitting erudite invective the next.

The key or the pitchfork -- that is the question, and as the cheeky illustration at the front of Riemer's book so readily attests, with Hughes you can't have one without the other.

BENJAMIN GENOCCHIO is national art critic for the Australian newspaper, where this text first appeared.

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