by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Hannah Frank

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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.