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Robert Hughes - Nothing if not critical
, 2001

by Bill Leak

oil on canvas (frame: 177.0 x 192.0 cm)

Robert Hughes AO (1938-2012) was the senior art critic for Time magazine and one of Australia’s famous expatriates of the 1960s. Born in Sydney, Hughes was educated at Riverview and Sydney University, although he did not complete a degree. Like many of the figures who floated around the Sydney ‘Push’ in the late 1950s, he began his career contributing poems, cartoons, criticism and articles to Honi Soit, the Observer, and Nation. He began working for Time in 1970, the year his The Art of Australia was published, and lived in the USA for the rest of his life. His books and television series include The Shock of the New (1980), The Fatal Shore (1987), Nothing if Not Critical (1990), American Visions (1997) and A Jerk on One End (1999), the latter about fishing.

In 1999, just after beginning to film his television series on Australia Beyond the Fatal Shore, Hughes suffered a terrible car accident on the coast of Western Australia. The series was cobbled together during his agonising convalescence, and Hughes had little control over the final cut; it was hostilely reviewed. The accident led to a protracted legal process; three years later, there was still talk of extraditing Hughes from the USA to face charges. His second marriage broke down, and his only son died. The effect of these experiences on his friend led Leak to abandon his earlier, more detailed portrait for this one, inspired by the terrifying late work of Goya, conveying Hughes’s furious pain, despair and determination in the years after 1999. Named the London Sunday Times Writer of the Year in 2000, Hughes proceeded to write Goya (2003) and a superb autobiography, Things I Didn’t Know (2006).

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2002
Accession number: 2002.24