Sunday, 3 December 2006

Robert Hughes' memoir Things I Didn't Know is reviewed in the current issue of Quadrant by Patricia Anderson, who has written for the magazine before and is working on a book, Robert Hughes: The Australian Years. "Former owner of Crawford Gallery in Sydney, Patricia is the Sydney Art Critic for The Australian," the Critical Mass (ABC arts program) Web site tells us. Other Web sites also tell us similar things, even on one occasion that she is "a Sydney art critic for The Australian". This is a small but crucial difference, as I was always of the opinion that Sebastian Smee was The Australian's chief art critic. He gets more column inches, anyway.

Anderson has written for Quadrant on multiple occasions in the past. As an alternative biographer of Hughes she is ideally suited to writing a review, titled 'Too Much and Not Enough', of the first instalment of his memoir.

Perhaps an alternative title for Robert Hughes' recently released memoir Things I Didn't Know might be Things I Shouldn't Have Said.

Anderson's dry, acerbic sensibility is evident in these, the first lines of her three-and-a-bit-page review.

Hughes cannot write a dull sentence, but he can rush past facts if they are inconvenient or slow the narrative pace. Having pored over the Hughes family papers in Sydney's Mitchell Library, I can recognise Hughes' father Geoffrey, a most remarkable man, but only just. He is examined, but somehow lost to a dazzling dissertation on what under-equipped fighter pilots endured while seated in their cockpits in a sordid and pointless war. Thus he becomes just one more individual dissolved in a cocktail of virtuoso writing.

She spends five paragraphs on the car accident that causes Hughes to use a walking stick — seen on television during his interview with Andrew Denton last month.

This accident on a lonely stretch of road (not lonely enough, as it happened) and its aftermath are traced in visceral detail by Hughes, and clearly the writing of it was cathartic for him. Hughes was operated on for thirteen hours and in intensive care for five weeks. Years later he is still pain-wracked, and his courage and stamina in dealing with his infirmities are perhaps the only aspect of this horrifying saga he doesn't diminish by over-examination.


Hughes dismisses his bullying by the Australian media as resentment of his international status. The costs involved in an ensuing court case—and here he second guesses the media—were "perhaps not adequate punishment, but at lease a fitting knock on the knuckles for a fucking elitist cunt like me". And this provides his next refrain. Hughes is a committed and unapologetic elitist, and he reminds the reader that Australians, so quick to disparage the type, relish it in the sporting arena. As an art critic, his writing career has been based on distinguishing between the excellent and the second rate: "I hate populist kitsch, no matter how much of the demos loves it."

The matter she treats is interlaced with an informed and balanced, and unalignedly sympathetic, eye and her wit is visible in every paragraph. She takes us quickly through the generations of Hughes males, from his great-great-grandfather to his son.

His relationship with Danton, his son, who suicided in 2001, is further balanced by looking through the lens of the memoir written, and recently published, by clothing designer Jenny Kee, who was Danton's partner for eleven years.

"He found it difficult to talk to men ... so when we were out, if he spoke at all, it was to women." Kee suggested that their last meeting had thrown Danton into the deepest depression she had witnessed. He wrote a letter to his father (which Kee was uncertain had been sent) which reproached Hughes for years of childhood neglect. "He couldn't let go of any of Bob's failings as a parent. I don't doubt that Bob loved Danton, but the language in which he expressed it wasn't one his son could understand."

Anderson also suggests that the treatment meted out to Hughes' first wife, Danne Emerson, was unfair and unbalanced. More things he shouldn't have said, she suggests.

Hughes' quick turn of phrase, so often spiced with the snide aside, is present almost from start to finish. Fishing, Hughes suggested, was one of those solitary engagements which allowed him "to be away from the garbage of other peoples' amusements and the overflow of their unwanted subjectivities".

Quite right, I would have said. Although for me, myself, fishing has no allure. Reading, rather, provides the solitary (in communion with one other person) engagement that I crave in my free hours. Anderson continues:

It may also have allowed him to indulge (along with his taste for hunting) in some sort of fascination with atrocity, which he freely returns to in discussions of medieval frescoes and which another reviewer hinted at.

There is nothing tremulous and awe-struck about Anderson's approach to a subject she is highly familiar with. She's not going to truckle to his aura. Having read the primary sources, including books written by people Hughes talks about in his memoir, she is able to debunk aspects of his life presented as facts.

Anderson looks forward to reading the sequel to this book: "Hughes' life in America post-1970".

1 comment:

cam narracott said...

I am always so deeply moved wen I read anything
about jenny kee or brett, am truley imersed in there youth,, I shed tears for others lives,
wendys bravery, to true hearts that wil live in my heart for eternity I am a true believer
cam glebe