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The Robert Hughes I knew...
A remembrance by director and friend Philippe Mora, West Hollywood, California
Robert Hughes, died at age 74, combined the roles of art critic, social historian and cultural commentator in an erudite yet accessible manner.
The media hullabaloo has quieted on a sad period where great writers Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes all recently passed.
Obit writers and others abused thesauruses trying to come up with some new superlatives to describe their talents.
I never met Hitchens or Vidal but greatly enjoyed their work and still do: profoundly interesting, serious and entertaining.
Philippe Mora knew Robert Hughes for many years.
I did know the feted art critic Hughes, who died Monday August 6th 2012 in New York. This event exploded into an outpouring of eulogies with the sum result of lionizing him as one of the greatest art critics of the last 50 years.
One can Google over 600 such pieces and you quickly get the idea. Descriptions include words like: eloquent, combative, operatic, witty, influential, fierce, powerful, lacerating, atheist, acclaimed, Hemingwayesque, prodigious and it goes on until really we have lost Robert Hughes in a sea of adjectives.
I can only relate to the man I knew since the sixties, first in Australia, then London and New York with a memorable event in Cannes 1973. He was eleven years older than me and I always looked up to Bob, sometimes in awe.
He was my father’s good friend in Australia in the early sixties and he dedicated his first art book to Georges Mora, "The Art of Australia". He used to visit our studio in the late fifties at 9 Collins Street, Melbourne.
He had charismatic looks, no small factor in his success when wedded to charm and superior intellect. A “golden boy” in his youth he had women and men bedazzled.
His rise to cultural fame was meteoric after he was hired by Time magazine in 1970 to be its art critic—a left field choice since Bob was Australian in London.
Some high-ups at Time read his “Heaven and Hell in Western Art” and Bob’s Catholic roots were showing. This appealed to Time, nothing if not moralistic, but trend conscious. Bob’s outsize skill with wordplay, puns, insights and insult all helped cement the arrangement. A witty refugee from “Swinging London” he was an immediate hit in New York.
As an outsider and maverick thinker he had similarities to Hitchens. Both expatriates with a different perspective by definition, they had a sense of fascination with understanding America.
Robert Hughes in his early career.
His first foray into American TV, a 20/20 broadcast on June 6, 1978 was a flop and as an old mate I suffered through the blistering reviews with him in Manhattan.
He was replaced by Hugh Downs, a un-Hughes. But he recovered with the BBC show based on his highly accessible THE SHOCK OF THE NEW about modernism. Funny, smart and with a rough telegenic appeal he was back with a punch.
American Visions, a 1997 survey of American art since the Revolution was also successful, and he then often appeared in documentaries and television shows on art. More recently he appeared as a kind of combination of the Grim Reaper and Art Critic as he riotously skewered post-Modern artists like Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst. At the same time he praised comic strip genius Robert Crumb.
Basically he attacked what was (in his scathing opinion) laughable superficiality in much contemporary art. For Hughes, Duchamp’s Urinal, signed by “R.Mutt,” was now passé as inspiration and the huge fortunes paid by collectors for sharks in formaldehyde for example was degrading to his concepts of art.
Never at a loss with vitriol tied to a gag, his toreador –like stabs often hit home. Still, to be attacked by Hughes also made one famous such was his prestige. Most contemporary artists had run out of steam in his view, and were obsessed with money and career, not art.
He had a point; one can’t really imagine Van Gogh with a career counselor. In fact, maybe Western civilization had run of steam he mused, and the art reflected the times not by critique but by its mediocrity.
He could lack a sense of irony when it came to Warhol for example, who made signed screen prints of dollars in self-satire. Interestingly Hughes bashed Dali originally as a kitsch monger but changed his opinion in later years.
Like others who live every day at high speed, with great appetites and passion, some tragedies and disasters punished his life and style.
A portrait of Robert Hughes.
He had an unsuccessful first marriage with Danne Emerson which whom he had one son, Danton , who committed suicide in 2002, aged 34.
Hughes was in a car accident in the Australian outback in 1999, unable to get out of the wreck for 3 hours. This debacle famously ended in court with Hughes pleading guilty to a charge of dangerous driving and was fined $2,500.
But his relationship to Australia, already one of love/ hate, was damaged. Peter Carey wrote in the Guardian: “When, in the tabloid aftermath of his car accident in 1999, Australia turned on him, it is hard to overestimate the anguish he suffered in private…Whatever the truth of that car accident, we owed him so much more.
For God's sake, this was the author of The Fatal Shore, his epic story of our country's founding. … He had grasped the cruelty of our birth and shoved it in our faces. Here, in this vast masterpiece, was the hell we were born into, and he would be our Dante.”
He later married Doris Downes in 2001 and he said she saved his live. His later books on Rome, Goya, Barcelona and himself were all well received.
This next part is personal and I make no apologies. As mentioned we went back decades and he was also close to my late father Georges Mora, who was an early mentor on art and food.
He and Bob did a survey of restaurants for Vogue Australia in the Sixties. Bob as food writer, well, you could taste the food.
In 1970 he generously gave me his London apartment to film scenes for my first 35MM film “Trouble In Molopolis” starring Germaine Greer, Jenny Kee, Martin Sharp and other Aussies in London. It was produced by Eric Clapton and Arthur Boyd.
The art critic Robert Hughes has been lionized as the finest the world has seen.
In 1973 Bob flew to Cannes for the premiere of my film SWASTIKA. This turned into a riotous event because it was the first time Eva Braun's home movies had been publicly shown. Controversy erupted.
Hughes stepped into the breach in a boisterous press conference, stood up and staunchly defended the film. He then wrote a TIME essay in which he again elegantly defended the film and turned the tide that ran against it.
The film is now used in universities around the world to teach about history and the documentary form.
Then in 1974 I asked him to write a script based on the Australian classic about the convict days, FOR THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE by Marcus Clarke, a film I was keen to make, and he readily agreed and started research.
Sadly we could not get funding to make the film, but happily this event morphed for Bob into researching and writing THE FATAL SHORE, one of his legacy works.
I will always remember him as a loyal and courageous friend, especially when things got really rough as in Cannes.
I recall him with James Baldwin and Laurence Durrell on the Carlton terrace with a fine white in hand, arguing about SWASTIKA and winning them over.
Charismatic, brilliant, a gourmet in many fields, erudite, funny, powerful, another adjective overload....whence come such another?
A man of opinion, but balance, he liked to quote this from Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
Philippe Mora is a French-born Australian film director who grew up in Swinging London's avant-garde art scene in the 1960s, but has made West Hollywood his home for over 30 years (see "Swastika" Filmmaker on WeHo, the Berlin Wall & Nazis) and writes frequently for WeHo News.
His credits include: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1975), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The Beast Within (1982), The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), A Breed Apart (1984), Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch (1985), Death of a Soldier (1986), Howling III (1987), Communion (1989), Art Deco Detective (1994), Precious Find (1996), Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills (1997), Snide and Prejudice (1997), Back in Business (1997), Joseph's Gift (1998) and Burning Down the House (2001).