Robert Hughes On Goya: Crazy Like A Genius

Thursday 23 August 2012, 12:03

Nicolas Kent Nicolas Kent

The late art critic Robert Hughes had always been captivated by the great Spanish artist Goya.

But it was only when he narrowly survived an automobile accident in Western Australia in 1999 that Robert was impelled to act on that fascination by writing a book and making a film for BBC Four about his hero.

Bob described to me how, while recuperating from the collision which kept him in a coma for five weeks and in hospital for more than six months, he dreamt about Goya.

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"It doesn't try to be beautiful, it tries to be true"

These hallucinations were so terrifying that the only way he could free himself was to write his way out.

So from the start Bob's film about Goya was an act of personal catharsis.

Robert Hughes On Goya: Crazy Like A Genius was commissioned by Roly Keating, the founding controller of BBC Four to be shown on the launch night of the new channel in March 2002.

As the executive producer I flew to New York with our director Ian MacMillan to meet with Bob.

On a bright sunny morning we took a cab to Bob's apartment on the corner of Prince Street and West Broadway.

It was 11 September 2001 and the radio was reporting what was initially seen as a tragic accident: an aeroplane had crashed into one of the twin towers.

By the time we arrived at Bob's apartment with its cinematic view of downtown both towers were ablaze.

Bob's TV was on the blink so, perhaps fortunately, we were spared commentary: we just watched the tragedy unfold, mute.

What can you say at such a moment?

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"Goya is still the god, the father figure of every war photographer I've known"

Bob's response was refracted through art: he thought of Goya as the first great war reporter in art and now he was reminded of just how apt for this moment was the caption to Goya's shockingly brutal image from his extraordinary series of prints The Disasters of War: 'I saw this.'

When I think about the genesis of Bob's film about Goya I see it as being sandwiched between those two events: Bob's brush with death in Western Australia and the collapse of the twin towers.

The combination of the intimately personal - and what can be more personal that one's own near-death experience? - and tragedy on such an epic scale runs through the film.

This is what made Bob the greatest art critic of our time: not only were his opinions expressed with muscular certainty in words which stick in the mind, but in describing a work of art and how it made him feel he also captured the visceral experience of seeing it for the first time.

Only Bob could so seamlessly combine forensic analysis, emotional empathy and earthy humour to explain why Goya's portrait of the Duchess of Alba reveals the artist's unrequited love for this unattainable aristocrat.

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Goya painted and drew the Duchess over the years, sometimes in very intimate settings

Click on the first clip at the top of this post for his description of Goya's great history painting The Third of May, a work which to Bob was "one of the great pictures of all time by anybody."

Watch it once and then run through it again with your eyes closed. As much as Bob thrived in the visual medium of television to illuminate the visual medium of art, his skill was to remind us that great television is as much about words as it is about images.

Somehow Bob was able to transport us to the artist's own time, to the moment Goya put paint to canvas, while also conveying precisely why the finished work should matter to all of us here and now.

Bob was never afraid to confront the question: why does art matter? It was a question he addressed in everything he wrote and spoke, even if his answers were not always comfortable to hear.

At the end of his film about Goya, Bob admits the futility of trying to sum up the artist and his work in a tidy phrase. But he absolutely nails why Goya should matter to us now.

Our inability to measure up to the "peculiar intensity" of Goya's art might be sadly depleted today, he says, but if that is what Goya shows us, at least he shows us something.

Nicolas Kent is the executive producer of Robert Hughes On Goya: Crazy Like A Genius, and has made a dozen films for TV with Robert Hughes.

Robert Hughes On Goya: Crazy Like A Genius is on Thursday, 23 August at 9.50pm on BBC Four. It was originally broadcast in March 2002.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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