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Art critic Robert Hughes dead at 74

Robert Hughes has died at a hospital in New York after suffering a long-term illness.

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Australian art critic Robert Hughes has died in New York after a battle with illness. He was 74.

Bob was a true public intellectual. He genuinely wanted to share his passion and knowledge with ordinary people. He was elitist when it came to evaluating art but he was absolutely egalitarian when it came to communicating why certain works mattered.  

A statement from his wife, Doris Downes Hughes, released today from New York City said she was with her husband when he passed away peacefully at the Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York, about 3.40pm in New York on Monday (5.40am Tuesday AEDT).

Art critic Robert Hughes ... died in New York.

Art critic Robert Hughes ... died in New York.

"He will be greatly missed by his wife ... and his family in Australia, including his brothers the Honourable Tom Hughes AO QC, Geoffrey Hughes, his sister Constance Crisp and his niece Lucy Hughes Turnbull AO and her husband the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull MP," the statement said.

"He also leaves two stepsons Freeborn Garrettson Jewett IV and Fielder Douglas Jewett. His son Danton Hughes tragically predeceased him. Details of the funeral and memorial service will be advised in due course."

Mr Turnbull, who was related to Hughes by marriage, tweeted: "Farewell my dear old mate. Rest in peace." He also told ABC Radio that Hughes was known as "WU" to his children, or "wicked uncle" ... "not that he was very wicked".

Robert Hughes ... "He was a real man's man."

Robert Hughes ... "He was a real man's man." Photo: Trevor Dallen

Ms Turnbull said her uncle had been very unwell "with a multiplicity of health problems".

She told ABC Radio he was a "fabulous and fantastic uncle" who was dazzling in his presence and enthusiasm.

He was also an enthusiastic cook and a keen hunter and fisherman who often went shooting with her husband, she said.

Malcolm Turnbull ... "Farewell my dear old mate."

Malcolm Turnbull ... "Farewell my dear old mate." Photo: Paul Rovere

"He was as dazzling a performer in the kitchen as he was at the typewriter," Ms Turnbull said.

"He was a real man's man ... he was a very keen fisherman and shooter as well as being an erudite and very learned communicator and so knowledgable in the arts."

Ms Turnbull said Hughes managed to combine the Australian qualities of irreverence and larrikin charm and humour with an incredible gift for language.

Artist and critic Robert Hughes pictured in 1960.

Artist and critic Robert Hughes pictured in 1960. Photo: Tom Linsen

Hughes worked with fervour on anything he put his mind to, Ms Turnbull told ABC News 24.

"The work that he had to undertake to do the research to write The Fatal Shore was extraordinary and he applied that sort of knowledge and expertise and passion to whatever task he put himself to."

She said his health never fully restored after a car accident in 1999.

Robert Hughes with Bob Hawke at the races.

Robert Hughes with Bob Hawke at the races.

"It was a life changing event ... and climbing out of that experience was a very, very hard one, and one that was possibly never fully achieved."

Hughes retreated from the world as he became sicker but had left behind many friends and admirers in New York and around the world, she said.

Professor Catharine Lumby, who first met Hughes when she was on a Harkness Fellowship in New York in the mid-1990s, said he was a "true public intellectual".

Robert Hughes in his childhood. Click for more photos

Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes in his childhood.

"He genuinely wanted to share his passion and knowledge with ordinary people. He was elitist when it came to evaluating art but he was absolutely egalitarian when it came to communicating why certain works mattered," she said.

"That's why he was so good on TV. He needed to pass ideas on because he believed they mattered."

Hughes, she added, "approached all aspects of his life with passion, appetite and generosity. Whether it was eating oysters with him at his favourite Sydney restaurant Catalina or taking in a Cezanne exhibition, Bob's company made me see the world more vividly and clearly. He was a generous mentor to younger writers and artists. He was very aware of his talents – but he didn't stint in sharing his knowledge."

Feminist academic Eva Cox, who with Hughes was a member of the Sydney Push - a group of intellectuals - said the author was "an innovative and creative writer even as a young man".

"I think he was that who was prepared to speak up and talk up. And sometimes he said the wrong things and sometimes he said the right things but he was never inhibited about what he said," she said.

"We need people who are prepared to stick their necks out and raise questions and raise issues and that's one of the things he said. I think anybody like that does act as a model for other people to say, 'Look, it's worthwhile having a say, it's worthwhile being a public commentator even though sometimes you say the wrong things.'"

John McDonald, the Herald's art critic, said Hughes showed he could go beyond the world of art criticism with The Fatal Shore.

"He is somebody who I think helped to put Australia on the map. People knew Australia often through Robert Hughes. ... But his way of life, his turn of phrase, his interests were things which transcended Australia.

"When he came back here and he was smashed up in the car accident towards the end, that was a very bad turn for him. I think it soured his relationship with this country for a number of years. But he turned around and he came back. It was only a temporary measure," McDonald said.

"In recent years, we just seen him basically being somebody who has suffered because of those injuries. He's never really quite recovered from it.  [But] as a writer, he is undiminished. We'll look at Bob Hughes. We'll look at the stuff that he's written. We'll always go back and say he was a truly great writer and somebody who, in the ranks of art critics I think of all time, will rank very, very high."

Dr Tony Moore of Monash University told ABC Radio National this morning that Hughes was "a man that was able to talk stories to Australians and the world and to take Australia to the world".

"He is a larrikin and yet he is a sophisticated man. He is both rebel and a man of the establishment."

Writer Michael McNay said in The Guardian that he had once described Hughes as "writing the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay and Dame Edna Everage, and Hughes enjoyed the description".

"His prose was lithe, muscular and fast as a bunch of fives. He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing. Much he cared."

The New York Times, in a short obituary published this morning, said Hughes was an "eloquent, combative art critic and historian who lived with an operatic flair and wrote with a sense of authority that owed more to Zola or Ruskin than to his own century".

"With a Hemingwayesque build and the distinctively rounded vowels of his native Australia, Mr Hughes became as familiar a presence on television as he was in print, in columns over three decades for Time magazine, where he served as chief art critic and often as a traditionalist scourge during an era when art movements fractured into unrecognisability."

In his memoir Things I Didn't Know, Hughes wrote about being visited by Death: "He was sitting at a desk, like a banker. He made no gesture, but he opened his mouth and I looked right down his throat, which distended to become a tunnel: the bocca d'inferno of old Christian art."

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes was born in Sydney on July 28, 1938.

The writer, whom The New York Times once proclaimed the world's most famous art critic, also made major contributions to Australian history and to the history and philosophy of one of his passions, fishing.

Hughes wrote The Art of Australia, a comprehensive review of Australian painting from settlement to the 1960s, which is still considered an important work.

His Shock of the New, his 1980 television series and book, has been widely hailed as the most readable and provocative account of the development of modern art ever written.

It established Hughes internationally. In 2004 he created an update, The New Shock of the New, which pictured an art world swamped by money and celebrity.

Despite living overseas for more than 50 years Hughes remained an Australian citizen engaged with his country of birth, although the relationship at times was strained.

The Fatal Shore, his 1987 study of the settlement of Australia, with its emphasis on the convicts "clanking their fetters in the penumbral darkness", was successful and controversial.

It was rated in 2011 as among the top 100 non-fiction books written in English since 1923 by Time magazine, which called it "a staggering achievement".

Glenda Kwek and AAP, Reuters