Friday, August 31, 2012


Robert Hughes the art critic and writer died earlier this month and it set us thinking about our own memorable encounter with him. He was giving a lecture in Wellington in the 1980s and we were asked to keep him occupied for an afternoon. 

What the hell do you show Robert Hughes when he comes to Wellington? Not being complete masochists we stayed away from art and started with the Maori and Pacific collections in the Dominion Museum on Buckle Street. 
Captain Cook's Hawai'ian feather cloak completely captivated him and his knowledge of it was formidable. Across the way from this cultural marvel was the Museum's attempt to display something of its fish collections. This was done by sticking stuffed fish on rods so they looked as though they were in schools swimming through a fake grotto. They got Hughes going prompting astonishing stories from the history of displaying things on sticks (as we found out that day Hughes could speak with expertise on any subject at all and we kept throwing up arcane and silly topics to see what eloquent miracles came out of his mouth). Next we moved onto a small glass fish tank mounted into a wall that had a single sea horse floating in it. The abject poignancy of it all was too much for Hughes who was convulsed with laughter, his face (already pretty florid) going a sort of purple colour. 
Back home, Bob (we were nervously calling him Bob by this time) saw his book The shock of the new on the shelves. He strode over, pulled it out and wrote with a flourish ‘For Jim and Mary Barr with best from Bob Hughes’. We were too stunned to tell him it was a borrowed copy.
We stumped up with another copy for our friend and decided that to commemorate the afternoon anyone called Bob or Robert should sign alongside Hughes. Curator Robert Leonard and artist Robert Jesson did just that, but then it turned out we didn't know very many Roberts and no Bobs and everything went all to hell. 
From then on artists who stayed or visited were invited to do something with book and its illustrations, you can see a couple of them above. Now Bob's book is going to spend the rest of its life in the Christchurch Art Gallery library.
Images: Top left, Marie Shannon deals up The rat in the Rietveld chair and right, Michael Smither transforms Cezanne’s mountain into Taranaki. Bottom Neil Pardington converts one of Albert Speer’s buildings for Germania into the Sarjeant Gallery.