Roberts Hughes is a bad-ass. Perhaps only those who remembered what his style owed to an American lesbian, Gertrude Stein.) Now, I've never encountered bad-assery in a work of art criticism before, but I think that's what makes this book so special for me. That's where Hughes' bluster is most effective: demolishing the facile theories of less bad-ass critics.
Knowing that Hughes is an art critic, I expected this book to be mostly a meditation on the old masters works, with perhaps some biographical details thrown in. Perhaps this is just due to a dearth of material, but Hughes spends surprisingly little space on the personal life of the great artist. Another drawback of this book is that Hughes, as a critic, is prone to decisive opinions, not all of them relevant to Goya (such as to insult Hemingways prose style, or to state his preference for Dalís Soft Construction with Boiled Beans over Picassos Guernica). Despite these shortcomings, I think this book provides an excellent and memorable overview of this great artists life, times, and work.
Does Hughes know Goya better than anyone else because he fell asleep at the wheel, got in an accident, and awoke much later with most of his bones shattered, in constant pain? I feel I know Hughes much better in all his contradictions, which remind me of those of the infuriating Christopher Hitchen, but Goya less well.
In these very conformist times of ours - especially in academia - it's refreshing to spend time with a non-conforming writer like Hughes.
He is quick to point out the places in Goyas life where documentation fails he may provide theories for what occurred during those periods, but is always sure to point out where the historical record ends and conjecture begins. For example, Hughes points out that the term guerilla emerged during the resistance to Napoleons invasion of Spain guerrilla literally translated from Spanish as Little War. These guerrilla warriors laid the foundations for modern guerilla combat, including a focus on terror and atrocities a warfare as psychological as it was physical.
I came across this book after reading Mr. Hughes's previous history of American painting, which left on me such a good impression. That is not good, but not good for the author, of whom I am not concerned in the least; what concerns me are his books, and they are some fine and jolly good ways to spend time and get some knowledge while doing it. I find it quite understandable when it comes to arts or politics, because it's all subjective material, no right or wrong analysis, but only a matter of opinion. The history of Spain and the life of the artist do not blend, though, Mr. Hughes tries, but cannot make them blend, there's not enough that we know about the man Goya. The author shows very well a lot of works of Goya and uses them to thread the story of his life and times, in a parallel sort of way. The talent is in the author for telling stories that catch the attention of the reader, for picking the bits of life that interested Goya to make his paintings and sketches and which are also the object of our interest. And there's lot of stuff to talk about: Goya painted war scenes, crimes, female bodies, street characters, bullfighting, portraits, monstrouous things, violence and stupidity, sanity and insanity, sainthood and evil. I would have liked better that Mr. Hughes used his usual straightforward style and accepted the possibility that Goya might not have been such a politically-correct and laudable person, or even that he might have been quite a dislikeable character deep-down, why not? He wants to make a caring and lovable Goya in the way of Dickens, but what he presents hints more towards a Franco-like Goya. Hughes is the one who brings Franco into the book a couple of times by the way, with derrogative intentions, of course. If Mr. Hughes is in the business of saying who is nice and who is evil he should be fair and blame the whole nation, for what would have been of little Franco without the people who supported him for so many years? And he would be right to blame not only Fernando VII, the clergy, the nobles and so all the way to Franco, but the whole nation of Spain, because this country hasn't been a nation of nice and well-intentioned folks for a long long time. Mr. Hughes arranges somehow to still like the character of Goya in spite of all the evidence that, rather, puts the man among those who are more apt to win his derision, religion being a perfect isthmus test for these kind of occasion. Mr. Hughes's personal commentary on Catholicism comes to the fore in its most crude form in these words: They (the clergy) were as bad as any modern Catholic priests.
The book is over 400 pages, but is not a painful read. That being said Goya is not a coffee table book. The book is not as much about his work as about the man.
Not only did Robert Hughes LOVE Spain, he has a genius with words and a sharp, pugnacious personality, just like Germaine Greer, ...I can think of THEM as Bookends !!! Again like Germaine Greer. (The German Expressionist, Otto Dix did comparable etchings of World War One warfare.) The development from the artist of colourful Spanish life is truly remarkable. Robert died last year.
Plus, I have always loved the work of Goya & wanted to learn more about this Artist. Plus, each artwork is so meticulously written about that it gives you a better understanding on their meaning & what, maybe, the Artist was trying to say.
Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, AO was an Australian art critic, writer and television documentary maker who has resided in New York since 1970. At university, Hughes associated with the Sydney "Push" a group of artists, writers, intellectuals and drinkers. Hughes left Australia for Europe in 1964, living for a time in Italy before settling in London, England (1965) where he wrote for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Observer, among others, and contributed to the London version of Oz. In 1970 he obtained the position of art critic for TIME magazine and he moved to New York. In 1980, the BBC broadcast The Shock of the New, Hughes's television series on the development of modern art since the Impressionists.