Review: A new book on printmaker Barbara Hanrahan documents her unique, otherworldly art

Barbara Hanrahan, Man in the Moon (detail), 1982. Picture: Supplied

Barbara Hanrahan, Man in the Moon (detail), 1982. Picture: Supplied

  • Bee-stung lips: Barbara Hanrahan, works on paper 1960-1991, by Nic Brown, Jacqueline Milner and Elspeth Pitt. Wakefield Press, $39.95.

Since her death in December 1991, Barbara Hanrahan has increasingly been celebrated as one of Australia's most important artist printmakers and as a significant writer.

There has been a spate of publications devoted to her art, including the pioneering monograph by Alison Carroll (1986), the publication of her caustic diaries in 1998, edited by Elaine Lindsay, and a study of her art and a detailed biography both by Annette Stewart in 1998 and 2010.

This latest book, with its three contributing authors, Nic Brown, Jacqueline Millner and Elspeth Pitt, originally accompanied a touring exhibition of her graphics at the Flinders University Museum of Art in Adelaide.

The National Gallery of Australia holds some 448 of Hanrahan's graphic works, and she had written some 15 novels. Both in her prints and in her novels there is often a strong autobiographical thread and she enjoyed creating levels of meaning and within them veils of ambiguity.

The seductive beauty of her surfaces, both in her prints and in her prose, frequently conceal an acidity in content and she celebrates a strange and disturbed world, one with a haunting presence.

Born in Adelaide in 1939, the same year as other artist printmakers including George Baldessin, Jan Senbergs and Brett Whiteley, Hanrahan lost her father when she was one and was brought up as a lone child in a house full of women.

Later, she produced obsessive images featuring portraits of her parents. As a child she believed in fairies, and later as an adult she believed in angels.

She entered the South Australian School of Art where Karin Schepers and Udo Sellbach taught printmaking and, as she was to recall, "printmaking soon became the most important thing in my life".

While some printmakers treat their art as a cathartic experience, the quality of other-worldliness and the strange naive fantasy that permeates Hanrahan's work was also a perception that she left as a person. Sellbach described her as "a foreign kind of person ... fairy-like and very vulnerable".

In 1963 she travelled to London, the first of many trips there. She worked at the Central School and was particularly attracted to the British printmaker and wood engraver Gertrude Hermes, and absorbed the early pop-art imagery of David Hockney and Peter Blake.

Her art presents a strange and unique blend of the decorative ornateness of the wood-engraver illustrator, and the defiant explicit sexuality informed by feminism and a commentary on pop culture.

The narrative aspect of Hanrahan's work frequently is strongly laced with moralistic overtones.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Hanrahan continued working as her body slowly failed her, spending the final years of her life in pain and looked after by her long-term partner Jo Steele.

She was obsessive as an artist, thinker and writer, disarmingly frank, excruciatingly personal, and armed with a cutting wit and an incredible technical proficiency.

In her art, she constantly explored gender and sexuality, but there was also an extreme fragility in her imagery and sense of empathy and compassion for others.

Half a dozen years before her death, when commenting on gardens and flowers, she noted: "The whole fragility of that beautiful world is very strange to me, and to think that these things are just growing out of the earth - to me that is a spiritual world."

There is a fragility and spirituality about the beautiful world of Hanrahan's art.

The three short essays in this book explore various aspects of Hanrahan's work. Nic Brown, who is also the curator of the exhibition, examines her art through the thematic prism of sex, beauty and the stage; domestic comforts and anxieties; becoming plant, becoming animal; and celestial bodies and the afterlife.

Jacqueline Millner adopts essentially a feminist perspective to Hanrahan's art, and possibly the most memorable essay is by Elspeth Pitt, who isolates the artist's love of William Blake and systematically and with sensitivity traces this throughout her oeuvre.

Barbara Hanrahan was an artist whose intensity, scope and quirkiness are difficult to describe. Unlike her Melbourne-based predecessor, Joy Hester, who was simply the odd woman out in the "blokey" art scene of the 1940s and 1950s, Hanrahan was identified as part of the feminist movement that smashed its way into the art world in the 1970s.

Hanrahan's art was informed by feminism, but was not defined by it, she was enthused and inspired by many but was a blind follower to none.

Bee-stung lips, more than anything else, documents this artist's personal, unique and mercurial path that she took in her art.

This story An artist of uncommon sensitivity first appeared on The Canberra Times.