The always quotable Robert Hughes had a way with language such as….


My colleague Randy Kennedy assembled some memorable comments from Robert Hughes, who died Monday at age 74.

The Quotable Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes in 2007.Andreu Dalmau/European Pressphoto AgencyRobert Hughes in 2007.

It often seemed as if Robert Hughes, the critic and historian who died Monday at 74, never wrote a bad sentence. And he wrote many hundreds of thousands of them in a wildly industrious career that stretched over almost a half-century, in books, in the pages of Time magazine and in almost any publication that asked him. Here is a highly subjective selection of some of his best:

From “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia, 1986:

An unstated bias rooted deep in Australian life seemed to wish that “real” Australian history had begun with Australian respectability – with the flood of money from gold and wool, the opening of the continent, the creation of an Australian middle class. Behind the bright diorama of Australia Felix lurked the convicts, some 160,000 of them, clanking their fetters in the penumbral darkness. But on the feelings and experiences of these men and women, little was written. They were statistics, absences and finally embarrassments.


On Cy Twombly, in Time magazine, 1994:

The sight of all these orts and fragments in Twombly’s pictures seems to have convinced his more ardent admirers that he’s a classicist, saturated in the myths and literature of the ancient Mediterranean, exuding them from every pictorial pore. All he has to do is scrawl a wobbly “Triumph of Galatea” or “Et in Arcadia Ego” on a canvas, and suddenly he’s up there with Roberto Calasso, if not Edward Gibbon. When an audience that has lost all touch with the classical background once considered indispensable in education sees Virgil written in a picture, it accepts it as a logo, like the alligator on a Lacoste shirt. The mere dropping of the name, or the citation of a tag, suggests that a classical past still lives, solid and whole, below the surface. But a toenail paring isn’t a body.

On the art market, in Time magazine, 1989:

If there were only one copy of each book in the world, fought over by multimillionaires and investment trusts, what would happen to one’s sense of literature – the tissue of its meanings that sustain a common discourse? What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.

And in The New Republic, 1987:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. The memoirs of Julian Schnabel, such as they are, remind one that the converse is also true. The unlived life is not worth examining.

From “Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir,” 2006:

It wasn’t dying as such that I feared, but dying in a hot blast, the air sucked out of my lungs, strangling on flame inside an uprushing column of unbearable heat: everything the Jesuits had told me about the crackling and eternal terrors of Hell now came back, across a chasm of fifty years. I could envision this. It would look like one of the Limbourg brothers’ illustrations to the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” – the picture of Satan bound down on a fiery grid, exhaling a spiral of helpless little burned souls into the air.



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