Patrick Hanly
A Conversation

Hamish Keith talks to Patrick Hanly about his painting over nearly two decades covering the time of his return from Europe in the early 'sixties until the present day.

HAMISH KEITH: In 1962 when you and John Drawbridge came back to New Zealand it seemed to those of us who'd been waiting for something to happen here; that it was a turning point. But what did it seem to you? What brought you back then, with five years away and some small measure of success in London?
PATRICK HANLY: The reason we came back was that we'd had enough of Europe. Initially, it was a great source of succour and you threw yourself into the whole thing with a lot of enthusiasm. You knew that you were more aware politically; your technique improved; your subject material was more universal, perhaps; and you had benefited enormously in every sort of way. There was no feeling, though, that we were coming back to New Zealand on any sort of crusade. In fact, our return here was going to be brief. We were going on to Australia because I knew that in Australia there were lots of painters, about the same age, who were doing things.

PATRICK HANLY Figures in Light 14 1964
oil, 1220 x 1220 mm.

H.K.: So coming back here was just a point on the way to Australia.
P.H.: That was before I went to Auckland. I'd been to Wellington - we landed there and that was unaltered, completely. But in Auckland I found there were people like yourself, and Peter Tomory, and Colin and one or two others, and a lot of weight in behind what had to develop. It was not so bad - the potential was clearly there and it could only get better. So there wasn't very much point in going to Sydney and starting all that self promotional hassle again. Clearly, too, people were going to start coming back again in dribs and drabs. John Drawbridge, I think, didn't come back at the same time, but about a year later.
H.K.: In the time that you'd been away, from 1958 to 1962, a lot of very energetic painting had been going on. What was your reaction to it?

PATRICK HANLY Welcome to Mount Eden 1962
oil 1371 x 1117 mm.

P.H.: That it was not only energetic but also very mature. I think the experience overseas made you able to judge it to be that. Woollaston and McCahon. . . those two names. The younger group hadn't really emerged at that stage. It was still the oldies, or the middle-aged as they were then. But there was a certainty about the stuff that they were doing which had power and interest and breadth. And there was a strata of people obviously thinking and responding in depth. I would use the word 'professional', although that's not strictly correct. I mean that there was a total commitment. And that's what led us to stay - they were here and so were the people who were going to help us administratively.
H.K.: Your painting was very much, as you have said, elsewhere - sucking at the European teat: Chagall, Bacon - discoveries of real and 'hand-made' art. But the themes were also very European: about the voyeurism of people watching the world undress itself, the two minute warning of a potential nuclear holocaust, and other threats. The Massacre of the Innocents was a series that you attempted to continue when you came back. What stopped it?
P.H.: I'm not sure that's quite right. The Massacre of the Innocents series wasn't continued here - I had them in my gear, but that stopped as soon as one realised the European problem wasn't here.
H.K.: But for a while your painting here was still caught up in that kind of imagery.
P.H.: It was caught up in a popular, English Pop-ism. The first painting I did here was called Welcome to Mt Eden.
H.K.: Where are all the people, Mum?
P.H.: Yes. I did the Bellevue Road and it was about that clarity, the nakedness, the lack of people, the lack of a patina of the European kind. There wasn't really a continuation of the Massacre of the Innocents. Almost immediately I went on to find another set of images, a way of communicating through the New Order, after having got that one off about Mt Eden.
H.K.: While the New Order paintings were very seductive - many of them very beautiful - they were not a series. It wasn't a resolved group of images but a kind of therapy. How did that, in your mind, translate into the Figures in Light? There's a paradox, surely? You came back and painted the Mt Eden, which said 'Where are all the people, Mum?', plunged into the kind of Pacific iconography, the light, the colour and so on, and then suddenly popped up with the first series in New Zealand painting based on images of people integrated with the landscape?
P.H.: There were quite a lot of New Order paintings. A lot of them don't exist now because they managed to get destroyed. H.K.: Just as an aside - I want to ask you about this rage you have to destroy earlier paintings? It's one of the things collectors should be warned about you.

PATRICK HANLY Inside the Garden 1968
oil, 1220 x 1220 mm.

P.H.: It's an urge to correct the record. There's so much bad painting going on that if I'm going to keep control at all, I try to exercise that responsibility.
H.K.: Going from the New Order to the Figures in Light. . .
P.H.: The New Order was trying to talk about the roughness of New Zealand, its newness and crispness and those physical things. I hadn't, until that time, been an abstract or expressionist painter. Having resisted that in Europe, I thought it was the only way to really try and talk about this place. A lot of those paintings were made in that sense and so one got through a sort of therapy.
H.K.: You say that expressionism seemed to you the only way to talk about this place. For you, or for other people?
P.H.: For me. It was the only way I could talk about it. I hadn't, until then,. considered the idea of the Figures in Light and the social implications of those works. That really was a bolt out of the blue idea. It was there clearly when walking along the beach and seeing it - something that was not just worthy of a picture: it was a whole condition. The nation sitting around on its bum doing nothing.

Hamish Keith talking to Patrick Hanly

I'd been involved with the New Order, with the physical thing of the landscape, the bush, the sky - the apparent disorder there is in New Zealand, as opposed to Europe which has been raked over for thousands of years. Now I'd run out of steam over that idea. It had gone as far as I thought it could go and I was groping around for something else to do. This 'event on the beach' clarified it. I knew immediately it was a very real source of energy that I could develop.
H.K.: Looking back now, there was a lot of talk then about light. We'd put the Great New Zealand Light on the front of our bicycles - for illumination we thought. Did that have any influence?
P .H.: It must've done. We were all there at the same time talking about the light, so one was contributing to that discussion. It wasn't something that someone else was doing and you were joining it. It was happening all at the same time.
H.K.: What you say about the social comment of Figures in Light is interesting. Do you mean it in a critical way ,or merely as an observer?
P.H.: If the paintings are to sustain that comment, then I mean it in a critical way.
H.K.: But the paintings don't. They're just as hedonistic as their subjects.
P.H.: If people could see this barrenness, this nakedness, this two-dimensional aspect as being of the nation as a whole. . . I think as an expatriate you are automatically critical. You don't mean to be, but you are always relating your present experience to what was only eighteen months or two years ago.
H.K.: I realise now how frustrated you must have been when those paintings were greeted as very sensual, rich and decorative, as images in praise of hedonism. Nobody saw them then as having other overtones.

PATRICK HANLY New Order 8 1963
oil, 1041 x 990 mm.

P.H.: I'm not so sure they didn't. I said it and I'm sure some others got on to it. It's the same concern as the Mount Eden - the mowing of the lawns, and down at the footie, and how are the share prices doing on the Sydney stock exchange. You must've understood that.
H.K.: Well, I never did.
P.H.: You hadn't been away at the time. I'm bound to say that perhaps only expatriates might've been aware of it. I can't guarantee they did, but people who hadn't had those sort of experiences in their particular fields or disciplines were limited. This is one of the things one was saying.
H.K.: From the Figures in Light to the Girls Asleep - which in your own view was not a very successful series of paintings, seeing you've destroyed nearly all of them. But the drawings and monoprints were extremely beautiful. In all your series, at the beginning anyway, prints seemed to be footnotes.
P.H:: There's always a lot of preparation work of some kind. I didn't actually destroy the greater part of Girls Asleep, which was the first show at the Barry Lett Gallery. There were twenty-five works in the show and I think I managed to get back about ten. Since then I've managed to re. . . re. . . what?

PATRICK HANLY Figure in Light 16 1964
oil, 1168 x 889 mm.

H.K.: Rehabilitate?
P.H.: Revitalize. Revitalize some that people have had and they've been more than pleased and so have I.
H.K.: Was there any social comment in Girls Asleep then? If Figures in Light were New Zealanders sitting about in the sun on their bums, what was the comment in these ones?
P.H.: Nothing to do with that at all. It was a highly romantic concept: of girls, in the first place, of sleep - the complete innocence that everybody, even the most vile person, takes on in sleep. You don't often see it in people because you're not always watching sleeping people - you're usually asleep at the same time. The best of the Girls Asleep talk about this innocence and delight. It's a beautiful subject.
H.K.: Then the Pacific Icons, a series of which 'decimated' is hardly the word - you practically wiped them out.
P.H.: Nearly got 'em all. Extinct.

PATRICK HANLY Pacific Condition 1976
oil, 920 x 920 mm.

H.K.: That was a curious series. A break from the figurative painting in Figures in Light and Girls Asleep. In retrospect, it seems an attempt to sharpen up and tidy up the New Order series and make very simple, careful statements. Why reject those? Many people found them very beautiful, if not very deep.
P.H.: I can't recall how strong the reasons were to talk about the essential Pacific thing. Maybe there was a lot of talk about our national condition, the physical conditions, and I was influenced by that. What I was trying to do was essential, instant painting, after lots of getting it all together, applying all the training and experiences and imparting all that in one gesture. (I had Sengai in mind.) But they failed, and I knew they failed because of the tightness and obvious limitations of the Pacific Icon end product. The works left me cold. They were very calculated and pre-meditated and fell flat on their faces in most cases.
H.K.: Yet the response to them was very positive - not just from collectors going to a gallery to buy a Patrick Hanly, but from people who knew your work and knew you. But then there was this amazing assault on them by their author. Then followed perhaps one of the most curious episodes in your career. I still think it one of the oddest ways to approach painting I've ever heard of. It seemed so then. It seems so now. Shutting yourself in the dark.

PATRICK HANLY Girl in Light 1964
drypoint, 145 x 155 mm.

P.H.: The only way. You can see why I had to give up the Pacific Icons - they were enormously contrived and they hadn't satisfied me in the way that I thought they should. I was not at rest with what I'd done. You know where you've been, if you've done something - something happens that pacifies you for a while. I wasn't pacified by these. I was very upset. On reflection I think I was right to destroy them.

PATRICK HANLY Girl Asleep 1965
oil, 740 x 880 mm.

I think I was moving toward a visual, or rather, graphic death, in one sense. It was becoming such a high wire act that I kept falling off. It got to be very desperate because I could see, in my logical reasoning about painting, that clarification and simplification was what it should really be at. But I'd run out of enthusiasm. So where did I turn?
H.K.: The darkness?
P.H.: It didn't happen overnight: but it was an amazing idea. I wrote this in my notebook at the time:
The only way. . . after years of useless restrictions of every kind was to begin at the literal beginning. .. in the total dark, working without any conscious connection with materials, the colour of crayon or paints. . . The whole brilliant simplicity of the event was fantastically exciting and enormously difficult because of twenty years of traditional patterns of thinking. Eventually, intuitive actions with pencil and paints etc. began to happen in amongst the traditional jungle that had a natural rightness. And these marks continued creeping into the darkness, into the suggested void which I now knew as existing in huge vastness where anything could happen, and where it could only happen.

PATRICK HANLY Telephone Table 1973
oil, 920 x 920 mm.

H.K.: So out of the second 'New Order' - although it wasn't called that - came a. whole series of paintings which were not sudden leaps in one direction or another, but inter-related views of the world in a very vivid sort of way: Inside the Garden, Molecular, Energy series and so on.
P.H.: The darkness was a very necessary withdrawal from the way things were going.
H.K.: McCahon has said of his Titirangi paintings from 1956 to 1958 that they're about 'seeing' - he used the biblical story of the blind man given sight who saw men like trees walking. Those sort of newly-opened eyes seemed to mark your painting from then on. Is that a superficial observation?
P.H.: No. It's as accurate as one might be in putting that difficult realisation to people. It was a sort of revelation - I pick the word as carefully as possible, because it really was rejuvenating, revealing, begetting - everything could begin again!
H.K.: Where the Figures in Light were two-dimensional and decorative, the kind of 'seeing' that went on after the death and the darkness, was not only seeing objects and colours and light but the processes of things?

PATRICK HANLY The Golden Age A 1978
oil, 1220 x 1220 mm.

P.H.: An encounter which, up until then, was about as far away from my thinking as going to the races. It was a very profound event and has been sustaining since, when things could possibly have got dark and dismal and difficult. But there just isn't any chance of that happening again - ever.
H.K.: This vision of the processes in things, the relationships between things seen in a positive sense, not the juxtaposition of two flowers in the garden, but what happens between them - began in a very domestic, accessible landscape?
P.H.: You were realising that it was all there, in the simplest thing. You didn't have to go racing around the world, or going anywhere, not ever. Those simple realisations were enormously important.
H.K.: The paintings that follow this period - their objectives were not always obvious to people. What was your reaction to the public response?
P.H.: A lot of people saw these works at different levels. Some rang up in the middle of the night and said 'You don't know me, but.. . ' And they would talk about the watercolours, for instance - which were the most obviously acceptable - and how they turned them on. There was a lot of dope around then and people were all tripping out. I hadn't taken acid because it wasn't going to be a proper part of the procedure - you didn't have to because this whole event was so vast it could only have happened in the natural way.

oil, 1041 x 863 mm.

H.K.: The progression from those flowers, tamarillos, single objects, the garden, to larger works and people again - how did you get to each of these? Before, there were starts and stops: but now there's a continuum. Is this by chance or is there any determining factor?
P.H.: There's a link now between all the stuff. One just goes off and extends one particular area of interest. It might be the figure, as it is at the present time, or it might be the landscape, or anything. The whole point about the initial exercise was that everything had its own importance, its own incredible and meaningful reality, so anything you turned to, that whetted your visual appetite, you could develop. There was no image at the end. It was a continuing process, an expanding one, always opening out.

PATRICK HANLY Adventurer Torso 78 1978
etching, 905 x 905 mm.

The essence of events. . . they were all about the essence of an event - whether it was a flower event, a day's sailing event or a Pacific thing which I used in the mural at Mangere. All those rhythms and colours were about the South Pacific rhythms - the spaciousness, the aquatic thing, the masses of water, the astral bit and so on. To most people's eyes they're abstract work but they're about the essences.
H.K.: Can you read the same interpretation into two works as diverse, but on similar scales, as the Mangere mural and the Christchurch Town Hall mural?
P.H.: No. The Christchurch Town Hall mural was a design problem and very two dimensional. Anybody who knows an-thing about painting can see the difference in the two works. The Mangere job was an infinitely more painterly event, with a lot of dimensions. The Mangere mural, and the works that led up to that, were involved with what I'd been trying to do in the Pacific Icons ten years before: so it had taken ten years to get from the failures of the Pacific Icons to the successes of the Pacific Condition paintings.
H.K.: You feel confident, then, about painting as a communication of events and things?
P.H.: I feel confident about it. Yes. Very confident. One's work may have become more or less popular - it doesn't really matter - but you realise your own limits now. You know your mortality in the game. You know it doesn't matter greatly that they succeed or fail in people's eyes - what's important is that you're able to do them with that commitment.
H.K.: In 1962, when you came back to New Zealand, painting here was a rather depressing landscape, full of great empty plains and valleys, with a few peaks standing up in the middle. But what's your view of it now, nearly twenty years later?
P.H.: Currently I'm very excited about New Zealand painting (and all the other arts). It's in very good shape: There are more people doing it and consequently there's more work and proportionately more good work. Of course, if things got tough materially, a lot of people would drop out and only the very dedicated would stay in there. At the moment it's much easier, in a material sense, to survive. There's a great strata of people that you can have a response with and know that you're not aIone. The loneliness of people that preceded us - 'like Rita Angus and Colin McCahon was almost criminal. They had terribly difficult times and I think you can see this in their work. Latterly, you can get a tremendous thrill out of such diverse people as Fomison, Clairmont, Trusttum. These guys in their middle thirties are inevitably joyous, regardless of whether someone's having a bad time. There's an enormous amount of love and energy in their works. Painting now is like the National Orchestra, which finally grew up and plays its own stuff now. It's divinely good.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 14 Summer 1979-80