It is not easy to love the prose of the eminent art critic Robert Hughes. The writing is elegant and immensely learned, yes, but it is also spiky at times, hard-edged or deliberately, provocatively erudite.
The face is a surface in change; it does not compose itself formally as an index of traits. It suggests that personality is labile, and this insight was part of Watteau’s appeal to modern artists.
This is not the sort of thing one curls up with in bed. In my case, reading Nothing If Not Critical, a selection of his essays, earlier this year, I found myself doing most of the reading sitting up.
On Goya’s famous Third of May:
Signs of past art are there: I suspect that the array of French barrels and bayonets carries a small, sharp echo of a more triumphal and chivalrous military piece, well known to Goya: the palisade of lances in Velazquez’s Surrender at Breda. 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 edge 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.
If I had read this lying down, I’m certain I would have added more to the sum of things I missed.
It took me about a month to read the whole thing through (the book, which I bought from a wonderfully messy second-hand bookstore in Minneapolis, was a definitely harder read than Culture of Complaint, which was the very first book I bought through mail order ten years before). Today, Nothing is about a third thicker than when I bought it, because of all the earmarked pages I used to signpost my unsteady progress. The fat it gained is a reminder that this was the best book I’ve read all year.
Because criticism is also a slow self-revelation, Hughes could not help but write the best possible description of his style — albeit inadvertently.
To see Chardin’s work en masse, in the midst of a period stuffed with every kind of jerky innovation, narcissistic blurting and trashy "relevance," is to be reminded that lucidity, deliberation, probity and calm are still the chief virtues of the art of painting.
These, too, are the virtues of his own criticism. The great Chardin, he writes, had the "ability to absorb himself in the visual to the point of self-effacement. Now and again, as in his Basket of Wild Strawberries — a glowing red cone, compressing the effulgence of a volcano onto the kitchen table, balanced by two white carnations and the cold, silvery transparencies of a water glass — the sense of rapture is delivered almost before the painting is grasped."
Hughes values the great paintings because they provide "such a lesson in seeing." This is the very thing we value in his work. He writes the way Giorgio Morandi paints:
… Modestly, insistently, Morandi’s images try to slow the eye, asking it to give up its inattention, its restless scanning, and to give full weight to something small. When Japanese aesthetes spoke of the quality called wabi, they had in mind something like this: the clarity of ordinary substance seen for itself, in its true quality. Chardin had this most of the time, and Vermeer nearly all the time; Manet and Braque, in very different ways, understood it; and Morandi’s entire life was predicated on the prolonged search for it.
As it turns out, Hughes’s own pursuit of grace and light came out of a troubled personal history; his many odes to lucidity, deliberation, probity, and calm first emerged out of the personal hell called free love.
When I was 28, an Australian living in late Sixties London, I launched into a marriage that brought me, along with early episodes of great delight and even a small ration of enlightenment, the most extreme and durable misery I had ever felt.
Danne was his company in durable misery. The depths of her addiction to sex, with any willing man, and then with women, can only be guessed at, although the excerpt from his forthcoming memoirs that the Times of London ran the other week is graphic enough.
Diletta [the Italian nanny] bravely continued to tend little Danton [Danne’s son with Hughes], and I went into a moping spiral of helpless, unassuageable jealousy. I was a cuckold, going cuckoo. I was bewildered, shell-shocked and lacking the necessary defence of indifference.
Danne liked counterculture icons but generally tended to score mediocre ones. An exception was Jimi Hendrix. She did not tell me about this. Some girlfriend of hers did. I think it was Hendrix who gave her a sentimental souvenir of their encounter in the back of a limo: the clap.
She did not tell me about that, either, before passing it on to me. It was a nasty strain and it took months of antibiotics to shake it. Hendrix’s clap almost outlasted Hendrix himself, who died of an overdose in September 1970.
Hughes’ own oases of "infinite duration" turned out to have been wrested, tree by ordinary tree, from a desert of untold humiliation.