The Human Condition

by Andrew Paul Wood first published in Auction N˚6 catalogue, 9th Aug 2017

The general tendency to associate Pat Hanly (born in Palmerston North, in 1932) primarily with his bright, euphoric palette and expressionistic gestures has obscured the subtly of his drawing and perkiness of his line from broader appreciation. His drawings are well worthy of equal consideration with the paintings, as masterworks in their own right.

It was drawing that first attracted Hanly to art. His grandfather, an amateur artist, encouraged Hanly’s drawing, unlike his teachers at school. With his first wages as an apprentice hairdresser at Bert Pratt Ltd in Palmerston North, the young Pat bought a book of Rembrandt drawings that his protective mother whisked away, lest he be defiled by the nudes. He also took night classes with the British-born landscape painter Allan Leary at the local technical college.

In 1952, Hanly enrolled as a non-Diploma student at the Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch (forerunner of Canterbury University’s School of Fine Arts), where the traditional training under Bill Sutton and Russell Clark prioritised good drawing technique. There, Hanly made friends with his contemporaries, the printmaker Bill Culbert and the photographer Gil Taverner, the latter of whom he married, in 1958.

On his return from the obligatory European O.E. in 1962, having attended London’s Chelsea School of Art, Hanly supported his painting with a part-time lectureship in drawing at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture. After nearly a decade away absorbing all that European modernism had to offer, Hanly was determined to reconnect with the Pacific environment. By this time, his skills had reached a high degree of refinement, as is evident from the supple confidence of every contour and form in his drawings.

While Hanly is often associated with his large murals, such as the ones in Auckland’s Aotea Centre (1990) and Christchurch’s Town Hall (1971), and for his epic The Seven Ages of Man (1975) series (inspired by the “all the world’s a stage” monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It), he is often most compelling at his most intimate. Even then, this is art with a public message. Hanly’s art speaks of how important it is to be in the beauty of the now, and how we must protect this idea for future generations (reflecting his position as a prominent Greenpeace and anti-nuclear protestor, as well as a keen sailor). He is also trying to teach us how art can main-line directly into the power of love, to effect change. His work has the power to extend the innocence and hope of the 1970s (for as with all things, the Summer of Love was late to arrive in Aotearoa, down at the bottom of the world) into the present, when it is no less relevant.

As Auckland critic T. J. McNamara wrote in Hanly’s obituary for the New Zealand Herald: “To express what he saw he developed a special way of working that was part action painting and part tight form. Out of this emerged beautiful paintings of gardens and still lifes where the power streamed from flowers and figure studies that were filled with energy inside severe outlines. . .” I think, though, it is the drawings that allow us to appreciate this technique more, allowing those “severe outlines” to emerge and eloquently speak for themselves. They reveal that the diagram of bones and scaffolding under the flesh of the paintings is equally elegant and moving.

Hanly’s drawings of the human figure are masterful, suggesting familiarity with both the multiple perspectives of Picasso’s synthetic cubism and the boneless fluidity of Matisse. A few lines sometimes work to encapsulate the entire composition, as in the example of Hanly’s iconic Sleeping Girl series, inspired by Gil and filtered through Francis Bacon and Marc Chagall, but more general archetype of womanhood than portrait of any particular individual. The figure is almost a landscape, a great hill of black hair, foliage-like eyelashes chiming with the briefest suggestion of hair at the armpit.

However, Hanly could just as easily construct something far more expressive, built up from shorter, more angular lines and filled with dynamic energy. A sketch from 1988 of figures apparently dancing in bacchanalian frenzy amid a marbled wash of ink, expertly delineated in calligraphic strokes, illustrates this well. The same can be said of a reclining female figure drawn in 1963, composition centred on her callipygian buttocks, titled Figure in Light, from the series of the same name. The latter drawing is as decadent as chocolate cake, imbued with a languid eroticism that transcends the formalist abstraction of its composition.

In a 1979-80 interview with Hamish Keith for Art New Zealand, Hanly said of the Figures in Light series: “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.”

This marked a rather surprising departure from the modernism of the previous two generations: the subdued and self-consciously serious “fretful sleepers” (to use Bill Pearson’s phrase) McCahon, Woollaston and Walters, and the drug-infused frenzy of Maddox and Clairmont, ambivalent about regionalism and the idea of a national art. Figures in Light was Hanly’s way of talking about New Zealanders, and about New Zealand as both a physical place in the Pacific and a complacent and hedonistic state of mind.

In contrast to the “southern gothic” aesthetic that inflected the other artists mentioned, here was art born of Auckland’s Mediterranean climate and bright harbours, of sun, optimism and aspiration, echoing the work of Don Binney and Ian Scott. However, contrary to popular readings of the work, it also contains a critical subtext, urging the national culture to collectively get up and do something. It was this same impetus that drove Hanly to protest the destruction of the environment and the abomination of nuclear testing.

The complex and multifaceted nature of this art lurks just below the bright colours and splatter, manifesting itself through the drawing. Hanly is reminiscent of the seventeenth century English poet John Donne, in that the confrontationally theatrical exuberance of the utterance is merely a vehicle to convey the significant truths of the earthly, the physical and the human, while remaining soaring and metaphysical. Even as we are dazzled by Hanly’s visual theatrics, we must gaze deeper, at the existential commentary underneath. As Hanly himself said: “An artist’s obligation is to create a graphic response to the essential truths of that artist’s intellectual and spiritual chemistry. Accepting that most “art” is illustration and craft, masters are distinguished by the realisation of the gift as having the presence of the metaphysical in their thinking and works, and it is that which others sense and seek to know. Art is in the heart.” And without getting bogged down excessively in romantic notions about art and artists, it is with his heart that Hanly painted and drew, as much as with his eye, hand and mind.

An ink and crayon drawing of a landscape from 1969, executed in Hanly’s immediately recognisable colour and spatter technique, suggests that his experience at the School of Architecture exerted some influence on the artist. The complex, interlocking volumes, straight lines and Spartan, pseudo-pointillist use of dots to fill the outlines of a house (a structure that seems more Robert Venturi-domestic than Auckland-suburban), contrasts dramatically with the lurid greens, purples, blues, yellows, and lush organic forms of the garden or bush that surrounds it. This is an idea of a place, a surreal, ideal impression rather than an attempt at realistic depiction. It is a feeling, a vibe.

This work falls somewhere between Hanly’s 1960s Molecular paintings, exploring the idea that matter is not solid at the basic level, and the Garden series, inspired by his home and backyard studio in Mount Eden. Hanly delivered compelling slices of suburban Auckland’s domestic utopia, quite different from the chaotic, self-destructive, bohemian existence of a McCahon or a Fomison. Hanly’s searching for philosophical and spiritual meaning has its feet firmly planted on the ground.

On the other hand, a pencil and black ink nature study from the Energy series, dated 1971, shows how clinically precise and detailed Hanly could be. Line, crosshatching and tiny flicks seemingly made by the artist stabbing at the paper combine to create a wonderfully intricate scene of trees and a grassy bank. Its obvious model is Van Gogh, in its attempt to ensnare the swirling life-force of the natural world in its scrim of lines, in a manner reminiscent of the earlier Inside the Garden series. A drawing like this is every bit as much a masterpiece as the Dutch genius’ stellar vortices and writhing cypresses of Arles. It dances and sings for the retina and suggests that Nature (with a capital “N”) was a tutelary presence in Hanly’s life and work.

This almost animistic love of nature, life and energy should be no surprise from someone who listed his hobbies in his New Zealand Who’s Who entry as “kite-flying, sailing, Greenpeace,” and who had, at his funeral, a “No Nuclear Ships” banner displayed above the open casket. This identity is as much a part of his art as anything else: “Hanly juggled his need to express his response to matters of social conscience with his gift for creating paintings that convey great joyfulness,” wrote Elizabeth Caughey and John Gow in Contemporary New Zealand Art 2 (1999). “The resulting works were, variously, political, reflective of ‘the human condition’ or observational, particularly of family and friends.”

By the time a Pacific Ikon documentary on the Hanlys screened on New Zealand television in 1998, Pat had been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. His strength and fine muscular control were failing, making it difficult for him to paint, although for all intents and purposes he had retired from painting in 1994 after completing the Bouquets series. He faced the inevitable with typical good humour, joking that he anticipated death with interest: “Some of my best friends are dead.”

Hanly passed away in 2004. Without a doubt, he was one of the most important New Zealand painters of his generation, taking New Zealand art in a vibrant, joyous, life-affirming direction that has more in common with Sydney painters like Brett Whiteley, Michael Johnson and Ken Donne than with many of his New Zealand contemporaries, thus putting a nail in the coffin of all that nationalist fustian about the uniqueness of New Zealand light. The legacy he left behind is simply extraordinary, a tonic in dark times and a taonga to cherish.

Read more about Pat Hanly