Things I Didn't Know
By Robert Hughes
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400044443, 416pp.)
Publication Date: September 19, 2006
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Robert Hughes has trained his critical eye on many major subjects: from Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Goya) to the city of Barcelona (Barcelona) to the history of his native Australia (The Fatal Shore) to modern American mores and values (The Culture of Complaint). Now he turns that eye on perhaps his most fascinating subject: himself and the world that formed him.
Things I Didn’t Know is a memoir unlike any other because Hughes is a writer unlike any other. He analyzes his experiences the way he might examine a Van Gogh or a Picasso: he describes the surface so we can picture the end result, then he peels away the layers and scratches underneath that surface so we can understand all the beauty and tragedy and passion and history that lie below. So when Hughes describes his relationship with his stern and distant father, an Australian Air Force hero of the First World War, we’re not simply simply told of typical father/son complications, we see the thrilling exploits of a WWI pilot, learn about the nature of heroism, get the history of modern warfare — from the air and from the trenches — and we become aware how all of this relates to the wars we’re fighting today, and we understand how Hughes’s brilliant anti-war diatribe comes from both the heart and an understanding of the horrors of combat. The same high standards apply throughout as Hughes explores, with razor sharpness and lyrical intensity, his Catholic upbringing and Catholic school years; his development as an artist and writer and the honing of his critical skills; his growing appreciation of art; his exhilaration at leaving Australia to discover a new life in Italy and then in “swinging 60’s” London. In each and every instance, we are not just taken on a tour of Bob Hughes’s life, we are taken on a tour of his mind — and like the perfect tour, it is educational, funny, expansive and genuinely entertaining, never veering into sentimental memories, always looking back with the right sharpness of objectivity and insight to examine a rebellious period in art, politics and sex.
One of the extraordinary aspects of this book is that Hughes allows his observations of the world around him to be its focal point rather than the details of his past. He is able to regale us with anecdotes of unknown talents and eccentrics as well as famous names such as Irwin Shaw, Robert Rauschenberg, Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Tynan, Marcel Duchamp, and many others. He revels in the joys of sensuality and the anguish of broken relationships. He appreciates genius and craft and deplores waste and stupidity. The book can soar with pleasure and vitality as well as drag us into almost unbearable pain.
Perhaps the most startling section of Things I Didn’t Know comes in the very opening, when Hughes describes his near fatal car crash of several years ago. He shows not just how he survived and changed — but also how he refused to soften or weaken when facing mortality. He begins by dealing with what was almost the end of life, and then goes on from there to show us the value of life, in particular the value of exploring and celebrating one specific and extraordinary life.
Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938. Since 1970 he has lived and worked in the United States, where until 2001 he was chief art critic for Time, to which he still contributes. His books include The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore, Nothing if Not Critical, Barcelona, and Goya. He is the recipient of a number of awards and prizes for his work.
“Hughes’s vivid ruminations and sharp-eyed insights combine in bold, definitive strokes to yield a rich portrait of the art expert.”
--Publishers Weekly (starred)
“… [Hughes] brings each time and place vividly to life, profiles an enticing array of influential and outrageous individuals, tells uproarious stories, and offers bracing commentary on everything from Australia’s xenophobia to the genius of Robert Rauschenberg to the nightmare of a terrible marriage. So funny, candid, and incisive is Hughes’ self-portrait and chronicle of postwar art world up to 1970, readers will hope avidly for a second installment.”
“A sometimes poignant, sometimes nasty, often amusing and always erudite memoir…A long, unblinking look in time’s mirror, by a writer who has spent his life mastering his subject and his craft.”
--Kirkus Reviews (starred)