It has been yonks since I’ve read a Robert Hughes book. When I was studying photography, it was virtually mandatory to read The Shock of the New. To keep up to date with all of my photography student friends I bought a hardback copy of Nothing If Not Critical. I didn’t read it all, only assorted essays out of that collection. To top off my photography studying days there was his Culture Of Complaint, which everyone cheered on as marvellous.
I’m sure I would have agreed wholeheartedly with my fellow students about Hughes' celebrated broadside at the contemporary culture, but would not have known what I was really agreeing with. In the early nineties, the so called culture wars were something I hardly had a grasp on.
A few years later, when I was working at the ABC Shop, I bought myself a copy of The Fatal Shore, Hughes’ history of Australia’s convict days. Since then, I probably haven’t read a Robert Hughes book in a decade. To be honest, as I have outlined above, I would have read Robert Hughes more out of a sense of intellectual duty, than for any sort of pleasure.
Recently I picked up a copy of Hughes’ latest book on Goya. I read the first three pages and was quite taken away. I ended up reading most of the Goya book over two days while listening to Miles Davis’ Bag’s Groove album from 1954. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book with such sheer aesthetic pleasure.
The book is a mix of history, religion, politics, aesthetic appreciation, biography and gossip and tittle tattle from the period, written in Hughes’ bracing style. With Hughes, there is never a dull moment. His absolute absorbtion and obsession with the material he writes about rubs off on the reader, and you can’t help but become obsessed too.
I wrote in an earlier post that descriptions of paintings make me go to sleep, and I feared that the sections in the Goya book might have the same effect. Happily, this was not the case. I was amazed at how much detail I missed in the paintings that Hughes alerted the reader to. For example, in one of the paintings of the lunatic asylums, in the corner you see a man on his knees giving another inmate a head job!
There were so many paintings in this book that I just wanted to rip out of the pages and stick them to my wall. For example, the three floating male witches all wearing those conical hats (remember that Pet Shop Boys album, I think it was called Very, where for most of the clips they were those same hats). I’d love to get a poster size reproduction of that painting.
I really didn’t want this book to end. Hughes muscular, assertive, urgent prose is an absolute joy to read. His penchant for gossip and titbits of historical trivia make the book all that more real and human.
This is not a dull, academic treatise, but a book that throbs with real life – paint, sex, the sufferings of war and old age. A splendid book.