Between the Lives: Partners in Art
ed Deborah Shepard
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
The arresting Marti Friedlander photograph on the cover of Deborah Shepard’s Between the Lives shows the late Pat Hanly, painter, and Gil Hanly, photographer, side by side, smiling with youthful confidence into a future offstage left. Over the days I read into the nine portraits of artistic marriages that comprise this book, I turned time and again to this image. Partly its fascination lies in the glamour that good black and white photography always engenders, but that’s nowhere near the whole story. The photograph powerfully portrays the heady romance of a marriage of true minds – that happily-ever-after of two young people who fall in love, marry and have children, enhanced by artistic talent and ambition. It’s all here in this picture – the pair’s self-belief, their belief in their life together and what they will make of it. Something else, though, lies just beneath the handsome surface.
Decades of heartfelt feminism deterred me from writing “the late Pat Hanly … and his wife Gil Hanly”. But look again and you’ll see this is undeniably a picture of man and wife. He occupies the foreground and two-thirds of the frame. His arms are emphatically folded, his chin tilted at a confident angle and his gaze direct and appraising. She is turned towards him and partially obscured. She has dropped her chin and is looking out of the frame from under her lashes in a manner that, in spite of the knowing smile, is winsome and demure. And her hand rests on his forearm almost as if reminding him she is there, because nothing in his stance – attractive as it is – makes any concessions to her presence beside him.
The effect is charming … and – from the vantage point of Claudia Bell’s poignant account of their long partnership – alarming. This is a picture of two bodies on a collision course as much as it is the image of an alliance, and it’s painful to know that what lies off-stage left will not turn out to be the glorious future they probably expected when they fell in love.
Of course it’s neither fair nor intellectually justifiable to turn two breathing human beings into emblems of what’s wrong with traditional marriage. There must have been times when the Hanlys escaped the husband-and-wife straitjacket to be utterly themselves. And it’s an old maxim that we know more about the dark side of the moon that we do about what goes on between two people in the privacy of their own marriage. But alongside this lies another, sadder truth – just how much we can extrapolate from the prevailing social fabric and apply to apparently intimate relationships. In other words, just how political the personal really is.
When I got together with the fellow writer I’ve lived with now for 16 years, someone asked if I loved him because he was a better writer than me … a distressing query on a number of levels. Certainly part of the reason I fell in love was that he understood the necessity of writing. Luckily for me, he also understands the necessity of cleaning the toilet, shopping and cooking and hanging out the washing. The difference between us and most of the couples in Shepard’s book (not all, though: the Siddells, and Frances Hodgkins and D K Richmond are a cheering contrast) is that how we live together – who does what – is negotiable. And this is almost entirely because we were lucky enough to be born later than most of the couples in this book.
In her introduction, Shepard accuses New Zealand art historians of failing to “read between the lives” of artists and their spouses: not recognising the role of their wives in creating the art of McCahon, Woollaston, Hanly and others; being blind to the fact that Anne McCahon, for instance, was her husband’s most intelligent critic with an unwavering belief in his ability, and that, somewhere along the line, this undermined her own artistic drive. Shepard notes how at odds this collaborative view is with the persistent Romantic ideal of the artist struggling alone with his muse, a superior being with no need of hot meals and laundry services, not to mention affectionate sex. No surprises here: feminists have long been aware that “women’s work” consists largely of restoring the world to normal and is therefore invisible, particularly to those who benefit from it most.
Nor is it surprising that once immersed in marriage and family, a number of these wives gave up on their own talent and ambition. Edith Alexander went to art school but once married to Toss Woollaston restricted herself to decorative arts – linocuts, embroidery, spinning, weaving and sewing – and would later regret her creative energy had always been “sidetracking into some craft or other”. Anne Hamblett was a prize-winning painter who, when she met the younger McCahon, was considered “a notch ahead” of him. Married, she eventually ceased painting and settled for book illustration. The Hanlys met at art school in the late 1950s, mounting with another painter just after they graduated a joint show, which “seemed to signify their equal footing”. Gil Hanly, not born too soon to benefit from the second wave of feminism, finally launched her new photographic career in the late 70s.
Shepard cites Virginia Woolf’s requirements for a woman pursuing her art: education, personal income, freedom from domestic chores and a room of one’s own. The harsh fact is that marriage to a fellow artist, back then anyway, guaranteed none of the last three. Edith Woollaston didn’t get her own studio until she was in her late 60s. Jacquie Sturm had no private study throughout her years with James K Baxter; when rheumatoid arthritis drained her creative energy, Mary Stanley still ran the home and mothered the children so that Kendrick Smithyman could pursue his work.
But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar. Shepard quotes Janet Malcolm on the “peculiar psychic arrangements” women must make to activate their imaginations, and most of us are aware that the room two inches behind the eyes is at least as crucial to creativity as the one containing desk and chair, or easel. To be a woman artist means giving yourself permission to locate and inhabit that internal space, to keep it sacrosanct. Not a process nurtured by traditional family life.
Shepard is rightly careful not to apportion blame for this state of affairs. She notes how hard it must have been for male artists to stick to their vision in a society that valued sporting and war heroes, and held fast to the idea of the man as breadwinner – as Peter Siddell says, it wasn’t manly to be an artist. Once, feminists might have insisted that these men forced their wives to give up their own work. Once, the answer seemed to be that if you could get men to take women seriously the rest would follow.
The truth is, as usual, less black and white, more painfully complicated. How much deeper is the falling-in-love spell cast on women who need to write and paint or do other creative work? Here, in physically desirable form, is someone who will make our work and the life it entails more legitimate, more rewarding; here is a partnership that will enhance our creativity, shore up our fragile sense of ourselves and our abilities.
What happens when, under the pressure of running a house and looking after children, someone has to give way? When you know enough about your art to appreciate that the work of the man in front of you is in some global sense more important than your own? Besides which, marriages rarely grow out of rational policy, but from a million day-to-day decisions in which the default position lies about like a sugar-trap. Then 20 years have gone by ….
In the documentary feature My Architect, film-maker and son of celebrated US architect Lou Kahn sets out to track down his long-dead father – in his monumental buildings and in the memories of those who knew him. Kahn was married all his adult life and had a daughter from that marriage; he also had children – one of whom is the film-maker – by two female colleagues; Kahn junior and his mother were set up on the remote eastern seaboard, where they waited in vain for Kahn to join them. Colleagues unanimously admired the architect, and excused the man and his private life on the grounds of his genius.
The trouble is, though, that fathering children by women other than your wife and treating those who love you with charming lack of consideration isn’t in the least unconventional – it’s run-of-the-mill. For every clever creative man thoughtlessly exploiting his life partner, there are a thousand ordinary blokes doing the same. Kahn and some of the male artists in Shepard’s book might have excelled in their professional spheres, but that didn’t prevent them from being ordinary in private, didn’t automatically endow them with the imagination and courage to reinvent their domestic lives in ways that would have allowed their wives more leeway. The stories – and photographs – in this book take their terrible poignancy from the fact that love does indeed overcome all, including quite often those who must endure it.
Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books.