The New Shock of the New


robert hughes b and w

Robert Hughes, eminent Sydney-born art critic, published his highly acclaimed book The Shock of the New in 1980. His longstanding position as art critic with TIME magazine gave him unprecedented access to artists around the world.  His criticism was often contentious and he was viewed as a “conservative”, although he had no particular philosophical axes to grind. In this DVD, he offers a revaluation of what has happened to both “shock” and “newness” since that time.  You can view the video at:

Hughes died at age 74 in New York in 2012 after a series of tragic events including a terrible car accident in Western Australia, which resulted in serious injury to Hughes and the three young men in the other car, and a court case.  It seemed Hughes’ position as an expatriate Australian and a high profile intellectual were enough to make the Australian press furious and accusatory. Details about the accident and the case are contained in the interview with Jana Wendt here:

No doubt this terrible experience sharpened his perceptions and focussed his mind on issues of Being, life and death, and the moral obligations of the artist.

It is clear from the way this video is constructed, and from many of his interview questions, that he regarded much of the work of the contemporary art world darlings as a degradation of art, aimed at making the artist into a marketable commercial celebrity.  The kind of “shock” the art world produces today is mostly absurd, ugly and pointless, from his point of view.  He gives fascinating examples through interviews with stellar figures in today’s art world – Jeff Koons for one – and then offers examples of contemporary artists who in his view carry on the essential virtues of art.

His interview with Jeff Koons is really brilliant.  What comes through so strongly is that Hughes is teasing or sending up Koons,  who, in his well-tailored suit, is so sure of his own significance that he doesn’t realise it.  Hughes draws attention to the fact that Koons regards himself as a direct descendant, or perhaps even reincarnation, of Michelangelo, and looks at his Pieta-like sculpture of Michael Jackson with a very jaundiced eye.  I found this sculpture actually quite fascinating, and not horrible at all, although a lot of Koons’ work does seem to me trite, overblown and ridiculously overvalued.

Jeff Koons Pieta

Some of the other artists he considered included the little-known Paula Rego, b. 1935 in Portugal, whose brilliant disturbing images seem rich with narrative and engagement in a scarily familiar universe.  The idea of a “discreet undermining” and the confessional/psychiatric tone of her work opens a different kind of viewing. The violence of folk tales and the terrors of childhood, the truth of families and the fear of never knowing what is under the bed (a pig, in one case!) envelop her works.  Her work is political, traversing the line between private conscience and public responsibility.  Her paintings especially of the 80s and 90s seem to some degree close to Lucien Freud’s, but I see her real affinities to be with the German figurative post-socialist Neo Rauch.  She is a very fine painter technically, her figure work and composition is outstanding.  It is clear why Hughes would want to contrast her with the vapid posturing of the Britpack artists; on any measure she is so much the better artist, yet she has been almost entirely “off the radar”.  Her images are too deep, her vision too disturbing, and she is a figurative painter and a woman.  At least three strikes against her.

Below:  Celestina’s House.  2000-2001.  Pastel on Paper: 200 x 240 cms.  Look closely at the details of this amazing work, go to:

celestinas house

Other painters discussed by Hughes included Anselm Kiefer.  Another political artist, it is much clearer to see his politics than in the case of Paula Rego.  One work discussed, Den Goldenen Haar Margarethe, is based on the poem by Paul Celan, Death Fugue,  which includes reflection on the phrase in the poem “Death is a master from Germany”. The inmates of the death camps will rise as smoke and their graves will be in the clouds.  The lines are:

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany

he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air

then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined.

For the full poem, see:


Kiefer’s painted images are dense and complex.  In many of his paintings he seems determined to pull the viewer into the recognition of perspective, even if it is only of railway tracks heading for the death camp, or some empty barracks stretching to the horizon.  Kiefer and Rego represent the need for an art which refutes the sterile irony of contemporary representation and asserts the primacy of a moral imagination.

Kiefer railway

Other better known artists discussed include Lucien Freud and David Hockney. I enjoyed these discussions less than the earlier ones, and felt Hughes himself had been drawn into a kind of hero worship. It was particularly odd to me that he went on to include such a long discussion of Sean Scully.  Scully is an Irish-born New York based printmaker and artist working from a downtown studio.  He has been nominated for the Turner Prize, and has had exhibitions all over the world, including in Australia.  Best known for his huge abstract colour field images he seems to me a kind of overblown Mondrian.  For his exhibition Colour of Light at the National Gallery in Canberra in 2004, he was quoted as saying of his paintings:

There’s a lot of physical force to them, a lot of tactile sexual energy, a lot of sensuality.  But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the relationship between the parts actually means and I think that that’s a very important aspect of my work. I mean if I have to choose a course between Puritanism and extreme romanticism, I think it’s clear than I’m going to choose extreme romanticism. But I think what I can contribute is something that has both in it, something that has the possibility of both in it, and it’s that extreme stretch that I want to try to achieve in my work. That’s my ambition.

Sean Scully 1

Scully seems to be well-regarded by fellow Irish expatriates and admirers, but the case for his art seems much less strong than that of others in this discussion.  What Hughes liked about it was the sense that it was meditative and contemplative, with its opaque and stone-like surfaces, density and lack of space.  His art looks like architecture, Hughes asserts. Without standing in the same space with these gigantic works, it is almost impossible to grasp them.  Yet, with a Rothko, you can look at almost any reproduction of one of his colour field paintings and feel immediately what it is doing, how it is drawing you in, what it means to think about meditation and contemplation.  To some degree this is true even of the great “black” paintings in the Rothko Chapel, Houston, although to see any image of them is nothing like standing or better still sitting in that mystical space and watching the apparently black surfaces begin to breathe, move and emanate the life force.


Hughes closes his revaluation with some very strange remarks, as if someone scripting his show has insisted that he make some comments on very banal and boring issues.  Can Art create Revolution?  Or just social change?  Is it enough to be “beautiful”?  Do people need beauty?  Are Museums (Art Galleries) the new Cathedrals?  Closing with images of the Weather Project in the Tate Modern, the suggestion that this represents a new Sun God worshipped by art lovers below seemed tacky and almost stupid.

weather project Tate Modern

I felt deeply sorry for Robert Hughes by the end of this show.  One of the greatest art critics of his era, a highly individualistic and sensitive man, Hughes seemed to be struggling against the very forces which he was condemning at the beginning of the film.  It would be so interesting to have a documentary showing the “behind the scenes” of the making of the New Shock of the New.  It might even be very shocking.

Hermann Hesse’s Art

hesse village 4

Hermann Hesse’s painting has long been neglected and remains little known, although recent exhibitions have raised awareness of his visual expression.  In 2008 (5-24 February) an exhibition at Maison Heinrich Heine in Paris, “Hermann Hesse- Leben und Werk im Uberblick” offered photographs, watercolours, quotes and poems rarely before seen.  This was followed in 2012 by an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland, where Hesse had lived for many years, experiencing an oscillation between a harmonious existence and severe anxiety attacks.  The publicity statement said:

Hesse did not see himself as an author or painter and instead considered himself an artist. His comprehensive notions of art kept the dividing line between the various arts fluid. As a poet Hesse was long seen to be a controversial figure despite the fact that he was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. Also as a painter Hesse had to wait a long time before art criticism no longer ignored him.

He worked only in watercolour – never a popular medium among art critics – and because of the lack of formal art training his “style” did not seem professional.  During the twentieth century, artists were mainly associated with one medium only: they were poets, or painters, or writers, or musicians.  But in the very early part of the twentieth century many of the best-known figures in Western creative arts worked across numerous mediums.  Photographers such as Man Ray worked with painters such as Marcel Duchamp and other artists (Rene Clair, Frances Picabia) to make some of the most striking early films.  Take a look at the 1924 film Entr’Acte.

Picabia as ballerina entr'acte

Francis Picabia as a ballerina in Entr’acte, 1924, a film by René Clair. (Scenario : Francis Picabia, Music : Erik Satie , 35 mm black & white, 20 min).  The whole film is available at:

Part of the outburst of creativity in the transition from pre-modern to modernist art-making grew from the refusal to accept pre-set boundaries about what kind of “work” people could do.  Looking at Hesse’s stylised and seemingly simple paintings, his respect for nature, and for a harmonious human place within it, moves us with its clarity, humility and directness.  Most of these paintings appeared alongside his gentle and sometimes deeply anxious poems, many of which remain untranslated into English.  The problem of home and identity moved him deeply. He loathed the certitude and comfort of the German middle-classes but found a sense of home in nature.  He travelled “friendly paths” to find it.

”One never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time.”

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), German novelist, poet. Frau Eva, in Demian, ch. 5 (1960).

Hesse vista 5

[Accessed 16/2/14: Sources:  above:  Terrassenhuegel, painted 21/9/1926,  below: Village, date unknown,]

Hesse painting 2 tree

Hemann Hesse: On Trees

One of the rare portraits of Hesse as a young man
Bildnis Hermann Hesse. Brustbild. Tempera auf Kart. Ca. 33,5 x 27,5 cm,
Date 1905
Artist Ernst Würtenberger (1868-1934)


The banner photograph on this site was taken by me at Honeymoon Point, Katoomba.  I wanted to place the certainty and solidity of the tree against the void of space in the valley, stretching to the far horizon. The valleys of the Blue Mountains are replete with ancient trees, with their long breathing and restful thoughts.Hermann Hesse was particularly moved by trees. The more I look at trees, the more profound I find his thoughts.  Here is a famous passage from one of his reflective works.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
― Hermann HesseBäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

See Post:  “Hermann Hesse’s art” for some of his tree and landscape images.


What is Art? Thoughts on bodies and animals.

The making of marks and images is embedded in human life.  From the blown ochres outlining handprints on cave walls to the ceilings in Renaissance palaces to the production of every form of visual material in today’s world productivity seems never to have faltered. Some of the most extraordinary art is made using the human body itself as canvas. Before modernity, in hunter-gatherer/horticultural societies, the artistic impulse seems already to have reached its full potential.  Without modern technologies, artists (almost everyone) understood how to obtain natural sources of colour (ochres, pipeclay, charcoals, earths) and how to use different media to mix and fix them to the body, to walls and onto the ground.  Although designs were usually inherited and traditional there was always room for innovation.  This is art in its purest, cleanest sense.  It has no environmental negatives and links the natural and bodily worlds in the deepest way.

Is art-making exclusively human? Do animals make art?  There are some amazing examples, although they seem to be limited to very specific circumstances.  [accessed 7/2/14]

Art, its existence and practice, raises complex philosophical and psychological questions.  Freud and post-Freudian theorists have proposed theories about art and its meanings which are not widely known, let alone accepted, in the art world.  The political meaning and function of art has received more attention.  The changes in the significance and function of art in era of technological modernity (and near universal commercialisation) are closely related to this question, under the influence of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.  Many resist any attempts to traverse these fields and assess their implications.  Meta-theory is not necessary for the practice of art which always transcends philosophy.  But for anyone trying to practice art under contemporary conditions it can offer stimulus and insight.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human commitment to art-making is how absolutely useless it is.  There is nothing to be gained from it in terms of the usual requirements for survival: it can’t be eaten, built with, or made to do anything other than to signify and please. Yet the desire for aesthetic pleasure seems embedded and the ability to respond to it seems part of the cognitive system.  Wherever it is possible to decorate something people will do it.  Making a basket to carry produce doesn’t require the intricate modes of weaving which so often appear, but there they are.  As soon as survival is assured and people can live somewhere above a bare subsistence, art-making appears.

Today’s systems of production mean that images are everywhere so nobody needs to feel obliged to make them in order to experience them.  Many feel they can take art or leave it.  But for others, it is something they are simply drawn to.  There are all kinds of art-making, some recognised and rewarded far more than others, but for art-makers one or more forms of expression seem to be pulling at the heart, or maybe the soul, with so much power that it can’t be resisted.

Art-making is a challenge as well as an intensely gripping activity.  I often feel the paintings I want to work on are actively demanding my attention, as if they already exist somewhere and are revealing themselves through me.  My ability to respond is limited by my inadequate technical understanding and lack of training.  Being able to make better art will meet the desires of my conscious, and unconscious, life process.

Hermann Hesse: Writing, Painting.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), born in Wurttemberg, Germany, was a poet, novelist and painter.  His works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Demian and The Glass Bead Game.  His writings became widely known in English only in the 1960s although he had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. Hesse melded several forms of artistic endeavour with a deep interest in and respect for non-Western cultures and religious systems.

He had a troubled early life,  marked by deep depressions, associated with rebellion against the doctrines of his strict Christian upbringing.  He believed that conventional morality was, at least for artists, replaced by aesthetics.  He began writing poetry and short prose works in 1897/8 although they did not sell.  He worked in bookshops and mixed in intellectual circles, especially after moving to Basel, where he was able to explore his artistic desires and undertook many wanderings in wild places. He began writing novels and his first, Peter Camenzind, was one of Sigmund Freud’s favourites.  Literary fame followed, and he was able to support a family.  However by 1911 he was tired of domestic existence and left for a long trip to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Sumatra, Borneo and Burma.  He hoped to find spiritual or religious enlightenment, but this eluded him, in spite of his ongoing interest in Buddhism.

During World War 1 he was not fit for active service but was given the task of caring for prisoners of war.  He opposed the tides of nationalistic madness and hatred, and called for recognition of the heritage of European histories and cultures, calling for love towards the enemy.  This resulted in hatred and public controversy, made worse for him by the death of his father, the illness of his son Martin and his wife’s developing schizophrenia. He began to undergo psychotherapy, coming to know Carl Jung personally.  In three weeks he wrote his novel Demian, published in 1919 under a pseudonym.

After his marriage ended, he moved alone to a small town on the border between Switzerland and Italy.  This began the most productive time of his life.  He began to paint, and wrote the novella Siddhartha, about the life of Buddha.  His most famous novel, Steppenwolf, was published in 1927.  He married an art historian, Ninon Dolbin, and began his major work, The Glass Bead Game, also known as Magister Ludi.  His Nobel Prize was awarded mainly for this work.

The rising tide of Nazism began, and he helped many famous artists including dramatist Bertolt Brecht and writer Thomas Mann to escape into exile.  His wife was Jewish.  By the end of the 1930s his work was totally banned in Germany.  His work was revived in the post-war era, but he was virtually unknown to English readers.

After his death, his works suddenly appeared in English translation in the United States and became bestsellers.  His writing was associated with ideas of the 1960s counterculture movement, with the quest for enlightenment and seemingly psychedelic episodes in some of his writings such as the “magical theatre” in Steppenwolf.  One reason for his popularity was the enthusiasm for his works expressed by Timothy Leary, guru of LSD.  His renaissance spread all over the world and he became the most widely read and translated European author of the twentieth century, with a huge and continuing appeal to young people.  His novel Siddartha has been translated and published widely in India, where a Hermann Hesse Society today flourishes.

Although Hesse is known for his writing, his works in visual art are vivid and vital, expressing his deep encounters with both the natural world and the towns and villages found in remote locations.  His work was entirely in watercolour, in soft bright pastel tones, with high horizons.  Almost every work included a tree, or several trees, framing and anchoring the landscapes as he viewed them.  Many of his small works illustrated his poems. Galerie Ludorff mounted a rare exhibition of these works in 2008, with the texts of the poems published in German below each illustration.

His poems were translated by James Wright in 1970. A selection appears at:

In recent years, as conservatism and anti-liberty sentiments grew from the 1980s onwards, Hermann Hesse’s works once again disappeared from view, remaining popular with only a small contemporary audience.  He is seen as a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, part of a pre-war European intellectual heritage.  This is a pity as his work shows deep engagement with themes of great importance today: nature, art, individual feeling, the development of an authentic and meaningful culture and the need for compassion and sympathy to all beings.  He remains one of my great inspirations.