Published  06/11/2006

Finders keepers?

In Robert Hughes' new memoir, Things I Didn't Know (Harvill Secker, 2006) lies the harrowing tail-end of a talented life plagued by adversity. An early career surge, followed by taking up the role of Time magazine art correspondent from 1970 placed Hughes in an indomitable position. Dr Patrick McCaughey, a former Director of the Yale Center for British Art and a fellow Australian (although from Melbourne not Sydney), writes a sympathetic review this week in the Times literary supplement (27 October 2006), but he is clearly perplexed by the seemingly disorganised structure of the 416-page book. However, there is method in Hughes' apparent textual anarchy. Not all will agree that Robert Rauschenberg was 'the greatest of American artists', however talented he may have been. Nor would one call Sidney Nolan 'a near genius' (his brother-in-law the painter Arthur Boyd would surely have disagreed here). Among the most plausible 'bites,' however, is Hughes' narration of when he was assigned to cover the disastrous floods of the Arno in Florence with a BBC film crew in 1966. As the Arno 'swirls around the Ponte Vecchio', as McCaughey puts it, Hughes 'extracts from the mud a panel of Ghiberti's "Porta del Paradiso"'. We do not hear the rest of this lucky break. All this is narrated in the first chapter, during which Hughes incurred an appalling road accident in West Australia, in 1999. Much of the structural looseness of the book might seem to carry the tangential mode of the confessional box (which Hughes forsook in his teens). One also wonders whether the way in which, as McCaughey says, Hughes lapses into 'abusive' models is not the antithesis in psychiatric terms of the phenomenon which the late Edward Said defined in his last work as 'Late Style', when outstanding talent rekindles itself in later age. We must all hope that Hughes has much more to write in art historical terms, in the vein in which he previously followed 'so compellingly' as the reviewer says.

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