1 of 2
2 of 2
Barcelona by Robert Hughes
He may have been the best-known art critic of our time, writing prolifically as well as making appearances on television, but Robert Hughes had several other talents. Novelist Peter Carey, his fellow Australian and a two-time Booker prize-winner, considered him their country’s finest writer. Hughes’ greatest book is not on art, but a history of Australia’s white colonisation, The Fatal Shore. And for foreigners who have wanted to know a bit more about Barcelona, Robert Hughes wrote the definitive modern book on the city’s history and art, Barcelona, published in 1992. The only unimaginative thing about these 500 plus pages was the title. But even this is Hughesian: despite his sparkling, frothy style, he took Orwell as a model and tried to be direct.
Hughes died on August 6 this year, at 74. His health had been undermined by a 1999 car accident that left him in a coma for several days. Born in 1938, he studied art and architecture at Sydney University, but dropped out after flunking his first year; one of the sources of his blithe rejection of an academic approach to art. He worked precariously as a freelance cartoonist and architecture critic before leaving for Italy in 1964 to establish himself as a painter. Then, in his moment of truth, he gave up painting after seeing the Piero della Francesco frescoes at Arezzo: “I realised… I could never give my own work a decent review”. His clarity about himself underpinned his perceptions of other artists, as he developed his criticism. He wrote several influential book-length studies of painters, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Goya, and pitched out his ideas in the successful 1981 BBC series and book, The Shock of the New, a history of twentieth-century art.
Hughes was adored and loathed for the sharpness of his views. Outspoken, he enjoyed juicy epithets that, at their best, could sum up a painting or an artist. He wrote because he cared and he laid into what he saw as the fraud of a lot of ostentatious, commercially-driven modern art, arguing that artists should be assessed by their formal ability and interpreted in the context of the times in which they are living. Employed by the conservative Time magazine as their art critic from 1970 to 2008, his opponents unjustly painted him as a reactionary figure. He believed art should be accessible, not obscure nor the province of academics, and he was quick to criticise figures of the art establishment. Hughes was radical in his defence of formal painting values, whether in use by the Renaissance masters, Michelangelo, Raphael or Caravaggio, or by de Kooning, his favourite among the New York Abstract Expressionists, for whom he had a special admiration.
It would be possible to fill the page with Hughes’ scathing comments on contemporary artists who he felt were emperors bloated with commercial values, but bereft of artistic clothes. Of Jeff Koons he wrote: “Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.” Commenting on the works of Damien Hirst, Britain’s wealthiest contemporary artist, Hughes pulled no punches in his use of adjectives like “absurd” and “tacky”. His clash with Hirst was famously voiced in his critique that Hirst “function(s) like a commercial brand”, and his statement that Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde was “the world’s most over-rated marine organism”. The attacks did no harm to Hirst, for whom all publicity is good. In later years, Hughes became pessimistic about the possibility of freeing art from the art market.
Hughes and Barcelona’s Art Nouveau
This traditional, anti-postmodern view stood Hughes in good stead when he came to write about Barcelona. Barcelona started out as a book on the city’s glorious Art Nouveau period from c.1875 to 1910. But, as Hughes explained in the preface, that idea changed: “It would have meant examining the foliage of the tree without considering its trunk and roots”. So he ended up telling the history of the city from the Romans right up to the Art Nouveau period. Little is included about the Civil War or the Franco dictatorship, though his long first chapter does touch on the post-Franco, pre-Olympic city.
His writing is not just witty phrases: underlying the froth lies enormous knowledge and understanding. Passages on Ramon Llull’s lust for synthesis, Ausiàs March, Casas or Gaudí present brilliant summaries of their work. Whilst explaining the specificities of Catalan Gothic (the pages are so concise it could serve as an encyclopaedia entry), he affirms that Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic is the largest complex of medieval buildings in Europe, greater than Venice, and you trust him because you know he has studied the Italian cities. He describes Ramon Casas’ influence on Australian painting, through a chance meeting in Granada with Tom Roberts in 1884, which opened Roberts to the impressionism of Whistler and Sargent.
Hughes’ comparisons are boldly provocative. He explains the huge building programme of fourteenth-century King Pere III “with its manic quality… (that)… flew in the face of economic reality” even while the Black Death raged across Europe, and he compares this, in an imaginative leap, with the “overreaching” real-estate booms of the nineteenth-century Eixample development and the pre-1992 Olympics.
But the book is uneven. Hughes pinpoints the “monument overload, more delirious than any Piranesi capriccio” in many Montjuïc cemetery tombs, a reflection applicable at times to his own image-overloaded style. Though my main criticism of the book Barcelona is the reverse: surprisingly, there are flat passages in the book, too full of the names of obscure poets. At times, Hughes strives too hard; even he cannot fully assimilate a thousand years of another country’s history. And there are omissions; I’d have liked to read what he’d have to say on the incredible story of the mercenary Roger de Flor and his feared warriors the almogàvers. Despite sharp perceptions, he could have further developed the connection between slavery in Cuba and Catalan money—and the flourishing of the Art Nouveau movement.
Rereading the book in the wake of his death, much of it seemed familiar, but this is because his synthesis was so powerful it has been a defining influence on how we see the city and Catalan Art Nouveau today. It is the basic book in English on Barcelona. With his combination of erudition, capacity for telling anecdotes and boisterous style, Robert Hughes’ Barcelona is the template for how to write about the culture and history of a great city.
Robert Hughes, Sydney
1938 – New York, 2012
Author of 15 books, including:
The Art of Australia, 1966.
The Shock of the New, 1981.
Also a major BBC television series.
The Fatal Shore, 1987.
Nothing if Not Critical, 1991. Barcelona, 1992.
Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir, 2006.
Michael Eaude is the author of Barcelona, The City That Reinvented Itself (Five Leaves).