The intro read:
The veteran protester is as stroppy as ever, but Pat Hanly has retired from painting. “Once Were Warriors came along and did what I was trying to do in the paintings. I thought, oh, I’ll take a rest,” he tells Keith Stewart.A NEW FREEDOM
The large Mount Eden villa is hunkered into a massive garden which threatens to become spectacular with summer, and there is a slogan on the front door protesting against floodlights at nearby Eden Park. Pat Hanly may be a retired painter, but he has not stopped sticking up for his ideas, and in many ways his fighting career has been as illustrious, and as successful, as his painting career. As one of the stars of New Zealand painting in the second half of the 20th century, his reputation rides in a cohort which includes McCahon and Hotere, and will always be associated with the revolution in painting which surged into national prominence during the 1960s.
Hanly springs open the door with a flourish, bright in an orange robe, and as enthusiastic as you would expect from his paintings. The house is packed, wall to wall, room after room, with a collection of paintings by the painting stars of the last 40 years: McCahon, Hotere, Ellis, Clairmont, Fomison, Maddox, Harris, Reynolds... “I am in an interesting position now, not trying to win any awards or anything, and I don’t have to any more,” he says, obviously relishing retirement’s freedoms. But retirement was not just a matter of feeling tired.
“Years ago I thought about people who had gone on far too long. Picasso! The last 10 years for him were a waste of time, a jerk-off on the same old stuff he’d been doing for years. He should have had the sense to give it up, but being almost totally animalistic, he just kept on. I don’t think he got anywhere in that time, and he lost me as a supporter. Then it started to happen to me, when I felt I didn’t need to do anything, there was no urgency. I knew it was time.
“I don’t have to get up and do the old ego trip out in the studio any more, because I’ve seriously been in the retirement mode for two years now. You can imagine going around the shows now and not having to respond. If I see a Maddox show, or a Reynolds, I don’t have to rush off and use up all that energy to respond to it.
“Strangely enough, the 65-year-old’s responses are very selective, because I don’t have to take on board rubbish. All those also-rans now I just ignore, because I can’t waste any time with unimportant work. Whether it goes on or dies, or whatever happens, is not my concern any more. All I’m concerned with now is the weather.”
It was if his unique contribution, his exuberant vision of this corner of the world, was running out of steam with him. Or perhaps that the sophistication he and his compatriots fought to arouse, which provides a broader awareness of art than New Zealand had in the 1950s, brings with it a darker side.
“At about 55 I began selecting out the stuff that I was doing, which was mainly in the social commentary area, the poor, or whatever. And I sort of started to get fed up with it, because it’s all a bit negative. And then Once Were Warriors came along and did what I was trying to do in the paintings, and I thought, oh, I’ll take a rest. Then I found that all the urgency, and the gift I had had all my life, it just went away. It was amazing.”
It was a confrontation with the gloom which weighed so much on McCahon’s work and infiltrated it with self-effacing pessimism, a gloom which Hanly more than any of his contemporaries banished from a glowing South Pacific fresh with life and light, and the thrill of individual flair expressed with ease. “I didn’t want to do, if you like, the blues stuff. I didn’t want to have to talk about beat-up families, beaten women, pissed and drugged people, and a lot of other people who aren’t making it. It was too negative for what I felt my spirit was about, which was preserving things.
“And even back then I didn’t want to carry that blues thing around with me all the time. The war was over, and there was going to be no more war for me, and I was never going to be another van Gogh. His work is so passionate, but I never wanted to go that way. I thought, there’s got to be a smarter way of doing this. If we think this art is so terrific and great, then people need to be part of it, and we want to make the whole thing as approachable as possible.
“The other night at a party I was boasting to some woman that here I was at 65, almost twice as old as van Gogh, and she said, ‘And you’ve still got both ears.’ How about that? It’s very good. There are a whole lot of people out there not involved in the arts at all, but they know their stuff; their experiences and their professional lives are extended and extending. It’s terrific to be involved with these sorts of people. They can speak with genuine authority in a way not many people could back when we started.”
This expansion of the art world beyond artists to a wider audience is part of a revolution in thinking that the old protester and his contemporaries fomented with considerable success, building on a foundation laid by equally revolutionary educational ideas taking shape in 1950s New Zealand. “All those art specialists that went around in the 50s, remember them? Ralph [Hotere] was part of that early on, and Peter Smith, and all those dudes, they went right around the country and shook it up. They made the art thing part of what you could do now, and not just a wet days or difficult kids class.
“That was part of the widening out process, and we haven’t paid enough tribute to those people, a lot of them who didn’t make it as artists, but they made sure that the kids all became aware and took notice of what we were doing. Those guys, Beeby and Parker, who set it all up, who said that ordinary New Zealand kids in ordinary schools would be doing art, that was a key ingredient to opening the whole thing up.
“And we were screaming out for the freedom to express ourselves because we were these unique, egocentric individuals. That battle was fought and won, which is interesting now, because now anybody can have ago, at whatever level, which is terrific. Just after the war there were a lot of disgruntled writers, poets, who were pissed off, alcoholic, who had a terrible time here. That was before the international connections we have now. Carrying that weight of undeveloped mentality that was around then, that was a responsibility, then we overcame that, so it’s a battle nobody has to fight again.”
THEY WERE HEADY TIMES, focused on a new breed of art gallery, their activities communicated by critics who knew the artists and popularised them as never before. “Fortunately there was a small group of people here in Auckland: Colin McCahon, Bob Ellis, Don Binney — you know, the First XV of the time. None of us knew each other, except for Colin, who had been in Christchurch, and Hamish [Keith] who had come up from Christchurch, and it was him who got onto the fact that we were dealing with something quite special at the time. That sort of club, or whatever it was, just grew, everybody bouncing off each other and it was very good, with a sort of certainty that went on for along time. Too long, possibly.
“It wore itself out, because we got too old for it, won too many prizes, all that sort of thing. It had to change, because us old dudes weren’t doing anything really spectacular any more, and nothing happened for a long time, and that was when the international, head stuff, performance stuff, started to grow. Well, it had to, because the painting that we had all been trained to in the European tradition had become old hat. All the new, gifted people took on this stuff, and thank God we didn’t get in the road.”
The sense remains that there is a responsibility on the part of established artists to support the next generation of emerging talent, and the next. “I can still clearly recall the discouragement of this place that drove some people to suicide in the end, or to alcoholism. It’s only latterly that artists are being acknowledged before they fall into that romantic artist’s death thing that they can’t pull out of
“Those good artists are special. You don’t get a lot of them in a country this size, so you can’t afford to waste them. Dudes like John Reynolds, you only have about four and a half of them at any one time here.”
Four and a half. Who is the half at the moment? “I’m not telling you. You should be able to work it out for yourself.”
For all the intended support, the competitive edge survived long after success was acknowledged, and the Auckland art mafia worked in many ways to limit development outside its bounds. The next generation was very light on artists able to match the careers of Hanly and his contemporaries.
“Rick Killeen made it because, very sensibly, he didn’t get into the same game as we were in. He was one of the few who decided he was going to keep doing it after 30, and he did it. Now it’s good to see these current guys doing it, that the chances are being taken. There’s a real freedom in going to a show now and seeing Rick’s stuff, or John Reynolds’, or Bill Hammond’s, and I look at it and really enjoy it.”
Recently he had the chance to work again on what at the time he called his “opus”, Prelude to a Journey, the giant 44-metre mural from Auckland Airport’s departure lounge — to confront a work which may really be his masterpiece, 20 years after he completed it, and to make of it a series of major pieces for galleries around the country.
“It’s surprising when the other day I was there doing the unwrapping, and these icebergs were popping up in the darkness. It was a surprisingly good event. Yeah, opus stuff. It’s good to get the chance to look at these old things, and sometimes it’s better to just say, chuck them. But this was a good feeling.”
And that other career, challenging the community not for art’s sake, but for more fundamental causes? Riding small boats against American nuclear submarines, yachts against French nuclear testing, marching along streets to stop Springboks.
“I was so angry that nations we regarded as friendly were bringing their way of doing things down here whether we liked it or not. The European experience taught me very quickly about political disasters like the last war and that stuff, and that got to me more than anything else while we were over there.
“For my art, that experience widened out my scale, my realisation of how far I had to go in my own commitment. I’ve never been back since. I don’t have to.
“I remember when we were going to see a Chagall show in the south of France, seeing a woman pulling a plough, and I couldn’t believe it. There we were, off to see Chagall — I couldn’t believe it. On one hand we were into the sophistication and joy and all that stuff that Chagall was about, which I was a big fan of, and on the way there was this great tearing thing, this harrowing, basic, primitive animalism of Europe. Those sort of contrasts upset me a lot, and I didn’t want to wear that.
“In 1961 when the Berlin blockade was happening and I was in Amsterdam on my own, and all these Dutch people were terrified, absolutely terrified that just up the road all this bad shit was about to happen. We were doing all right in Europe then. Gil was being successful in the theatre, making sets and things, I had made a lot of connections in London, and we could make it there bigger, probably, than we could back here. All those gifted, creative people like Hockney and so on, and Ralph and Bill [Culbert], let you test yourself with them, over issues and so on. That development, the excitement of developing those responses, was one thing, but against old, withered-tit Europe, I just couldn’t stay. Remember that the Pacific back then was so innocent.”
So he came back, to another, softer revolution, where he stayed and played a role that has made him less famous than he could have been. But happier?
“Yeah. Definitely. It’s been great. Still is, man.”