Passages: Robert Hughes

From Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays On Art and Artists by Robert Hughes. This is from his short piece on the Spanish artist Francisco Goya:

[Goya’s] The Second of May is a fine painting but not a great one, renovated Baron Gros with its heroic rocking horse but without the French etiquette of violence, and more abandoned in expression. The Third of May is not renovated anything. It is truly modern and its newness seems to have ensured that, although it was a state commission, it remained in storage for the first forty years of its life. The surface is ragged, for Goya is suppressing his fluency in the interests of a harsher address to the eye. Occasionally the signs of that fluency break through; one is the saber and sheath of the French soldier closest to us — a mere scribble, but what a scribble, of burnt umber, lightened by a swipe of yellow that begins in a round splotch at the tip of the sheath and swings right up the form. Elsewhere the improvised bluntness of his painting is tragically expressive, even — or perhaps especially — down to the blood on the ground, which is a dark alizarin crimson put on thick and then scraped back with a palette knife, so that its sinking into the grain of the canvas mimics the drying of blood itself: it looks crusty, dull and scratchy, just like real blood smeared on a surface by the involuntary twitches of a dying body. The wounds that disfigure the face of the man on the ground can’t be deciphered fully as wounds, but as signs of trauma embodied in paint they are inexpressibly shocking: their imprecision conveys the sense of something too painful to look at, of the aversion of one’s own eyes.

Signs of past art are there . . . above all, there is the man about to be shot, whom we saw dragging the Mameluke backward off his horse on May 2. There he now stands, facing martyrdom in his clean white shirt, throwing out his arms in a gesture that irresistibly recalls the Crucifixion. It is a gesture of indescribable power: it takes the spread arms of the passive crucified victim and makes them active, a flinging out of life in despair and defiance. Indeed, he has a face — coarse, swarthy, dilated in its last moment of vitality. All his fellow victims have faces too. By rendering them as notional portraits — the faces of the pueblo, the Spanish people — Goya grants the living their individuality right up to the edhe of the mass grave. The landscape, however, is featureless: a bare hill and bare rocks. And so are the soldiers, whose row of backs still strikes you as the first truly modern image of war because it is the first to register the anonymity, the machinelike efficiency of oppression. Nothing personal.

As an art critic, Robert Hughes was the right man at the right time — the time being the go-go 1980s, when high rollers flooded the art market with cash as they searched for the Next Big Thing to invest in. All kinds of stumblebums and phonies were being hailed as new giants: Julian Schnabel and his canvasses encrusted with pieces of broken crockery; Jeff Koons and his kitsch that dared you to call it kitsch; “graffiti artist” Jean-Michel Basquiat and his childish scrawlings. Hughes strode into this weird barnyard and immediately set feathers flying with his highly readable combination of pugnacious writing grounded in thorough research and a lifetime of interest in the greatest artists. As another writer once said of Dwight Macdonald, Hughes was very much a rebel in defense of tradition.

He was also a hard-living, well-traveled man, as his newly published memoir Things I Didn’t Know apparently makes clear. Judging from the interviews, Hughes may well be the only man in history who can claim to have caught the clap off Jimi Hendrix — albeit with Hughes’s first wife, a sexual adventuress in the swinging sixties, acting as intermediary.

Though I am usually eager to read anything Hughes publishes, I have no interest in this book. For one thing, who needs a memoir when Hughes’s own art criticism has already put us in touch with his life and personality? His long study Goya, his attention-getting survey of modern art called The Shock of the New, his history of the founding of his native Australia, The Fatal Shore, and his combined travelogue/art history lecture/ political rumination Barcelona are where the interesting and important Hughes can be found. 

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