Sebastian Smee

A great painter’s likeness perfectly caught

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Robert Hughes

Harvill, pp. 429, £

Robert Hughes has suffered no shortage of appalling things over the past five years. He has experienced deep depression and a second divorce; he suffered atrocious injuries in a car crash which came within inches of killing him, and has had to undergo 12 operations to piece his body back together again; a feeble attempt was made to blackmail him; he was tried for reckless driving; a scathing attack on his character was conducted in the Australian media on account of his perceived arrogance; he became an unwelcome figure of contempt in his own country, and his estranged only son committed suicide.

From an outside perspective, all this has been dramatic and newsworthy, to be sure. But from the point of view of his admirers one of the most regrettable things to have happened to Robert Hughes is that the story of his struggle with these misfortunes (in most Australian tellings, the sickening secretion of something as close to pure Schadenfreude as you could find anywhere) has threatened to overwhelm the far more edifying story of Hughes’s life as a writer.

To all this his latest book, a life of Goya, is a wonderful retort. A 400-page narrative both balanced and nuanced, it is also as vigorously animated by its subject as anything Hughes has written. As an accessible study of Goya’s life and work, the book is all you could ask for and more. Sturdy in its organisation, its interpretations, its common sense, it nevertheless fizzes with insights and hops with enthusiasm. There is not a dull sentence — as you would perhaps expect; but neither is there anything damaging, as can sometimes be said of Hughes, in the way of self-admiring rhetoric or over-rehearsed polemic. The book sticks to its brief, largely because it has no need to do otherwise: Hughes has found his ideal subject.

Goya, he writes, was both ‘a mighty celebrant of pleasure’ and ‘one of the few great describers of physical pain, outrage, insult to the body’. A very basic understanding of the capacity of human subjects to be several, often conflicting, things at once — so crucial to the biographer’s task yet so frequently lacking — informs and enhances the entire book. ‘Detail for detail,’ Hughes writes in a discussion of dress, ‘no great tragic artist has ever been more absorbed, in his untragic moments, by the minutiae of fashion.’

Precisely because of his anachronistic ‘modernity’, his status as a hinge figure connecting the old and the new, a dense cloud of mythology has accumulated around Goya’s name. Everyone has wanted to claim a piece of him, from Manet to the Magnum war photographers, from Dali to the Chapman brothers. And that’s just in art; never mind the claims of Spanish politicians on both the liberal Left and the patriotic Right. Hughes, a lethal enemy of cant, is at his best teasing out the main strands of truth from the years of encrusted kitsch.

The idea of Goya as an artist ‘naturally agin’ the system,’ he writes, ‘is pretty much a modernist myth.’ But this does not diffuse the abiding mystery of how ‘so fiery a spirit, so impetuous and sardonic, so unbridled in his imagination, could ever have adapted, not just occasionally but consistently over 40 years, to the conditions of working for the successive Bourbon courts’.

Hughes is at ease describing historical events, as readers of The Fatal Shore can attest. He can also make the slow, tectonic movement of implacable historical forces concrete, relevant and intellectually involving. His grasp of the (mostly thwarted) incursion of Enlightenment, or ‘ilustraci