In 1927, when Hannah Frank began to submit her work for inclusion in the Glasgow University Magazine - first poetry, then illustrations - she adopted the pen name Al Aaraaf. The pseudonym was borrowed from the title of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, one inspired in part by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s observation of a supernova, a star that appears suddenly in the heavens, shines with a greater and greater intensity, only to disappear again. It’s a charming choice of alias, full of youthful ambition, and one that contains, too, more than a hint of the doomy romance that runs through Frank’s Art Nouveau-inspired work in pen and ink.
But in retrospect, whatever Frank’s gifts, prophecy is not among them. Far from shining brightly and briefly, she was to continue working steadily, seriously and prolifically, for decades (she finally downed tools in 2000, aged 92, on the completion of a last sculpture, Standing Figure) and in relative obscurity, her talent only fully recognised now, with an exhibition in celebration of the artist’s 100th birthday.
Born in 1908, the daughter of Charles Frank, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who found success in Glasgow selling photographic supplies from a shop on the Saltmarket, Hannah Frank’s career began with a compromise suggested by artist and family friend John Quinton Pringle - rather than devote herself wholly to her art, it was decided that Frank should attend Glasgow University, taking night classes at the School of Art. Compromise might not be the right word, though: Frank’s illustrations are informed by a passion for literature, spun out of quotations from Coleridge, Keats and The Rubaiyat, as well as biblical scenes, mostly drawn from the Book of Job.
If her literary influences are clear, a glance is enough to tell that Frank’s talent was forged at the Glasgow School of Art. There are nods to the Glasgow Style, and the influence of both Margaret Mackintosh and Jessie M King is clear. That said, Frank ploughed her own furrow, looking back further to Victorian illustration and, with her liking for strong contrast effects and adherence to a strict black and white palette, borrowing from Aubrey Beardsley. This blend of influences results in a strong, decisive graphic style in which economically described figures and faces are set against stylised grounds. In Woman With Book, a drawing from 1934, Frank dispatches her central figure with a few concise, careful strokes, only to lavish attention on the decorative floral patterns that frame her subject. Night Forms, from 1932, features Frank’s trademark female figures. Described in long, languid lines, these witchy, sultry women, with long, strong-jawed faces and dark robes, dominate this exhibition, reappearing in the spooky Moon Ballet of 1934, and again in Misericordia, a 1937 illustration, and putting in a final appearance, more stylised still, in Dance, which sees a single figure described in two swooping lines. It might be a stretch to call Frank’s work proto-feminist, but these female figures, who almost always appear as couples or in huddled groups, are studies in both independence and companionship, and there’s no mistaking that these are works by a woman artist, about women’s lives, and their bodies.
One very much gets the impression that Frank is not a woman who does things by halves and, by the early 1950s, she turned away from drawing and illustration completely, taking up sculpture full-time. Studying under Benno Schotz, the long-serving head of the Glasgow School of Art sculpture department, Frank began modelling in clay in a bid to gain a better grasp of anatomy, so as to improve her drawing, but instead found a new metier. Her fascination with the female form continued apace, but in marked contrast to the willowy figures that fill Frank’s drawings and engravings, some of her small-scale sculptures have the bottom-heavy fecundity of fertility idols, while others mix classical reclining poses with attenuated limbs and worked surfaces that call to mind Giacometti.
There are some previously unseen works here in the University Chapel, too, pastel drawings discovered by Hannah’s niece, Fiona Frank, in an old suitcase stored in the attic of her aunt’s care home, carefully wrapped up in sugar paper. All are undated, but, going by the hairdos and frocks of Frank’s sitters, they look to be from the 1940s or early 1950s. The pastels are not as immediately striking as the earlier illustrations, and are perhaps best seen as a digression, but they are valuable, showing another side to Frank’s practice. For all her devotion to a monochrome palette, the pastels reveal that she had an eye for colour, perhaps discovered in response to her mother’s exasperated request, quoted in a wall text: “Give me colour!” There are hints, too, that, though many of her preparatory sketches from life and self-portraits in pencil lack spark, Frank was more than capable of working quickly, abandoning the precise, deliberate touch that characterises her stylised graphic work to produce strong, lively pieces. Seeing them, and the last drawings in pen and ink, which offer clues that Frank was moving towards a fresher style, still indebted to Art Nouveau but dropping the decorative trappings learned from Mackintosh and King, it seems a shame that she gave up on drawing in favour of making sculpture.
Still devoted to poetry, and still in possession of the confidence and ambition that lie behind her old nom de plume, Hannah Frank has said that she hopes, quoting Longfellow, to “leave footprints on the sands of time”. With this exhibition, she has her wish. I doubt it will be the last retrospective look at the work of a Glasgow artist who, better late than never, has made her name at 100.
Hannah Frank: 100th Birthday Exhibition is at Glasgow University Chapel until October 11.
This review was first published in The Herald on 26th September , 2008.