Barbara Hanrahan: A Self Portrait

Imprint 1978 Number Three
Cover image:
Barbara Hanrahan
The Little Girls 1978
etching, 35 x 25 cm

‘Drawing my own imaginative world upon the litho stone or scratching at the etching plate with my needle, I felt as brave and free as I had as a child. When I raced from the class to catch the nine o’clock train I wore white cotton gloves to hide my fingers that were stained with printing ink.’

This article was written by Barbara Hanrahan (1939–1991) with an introduction by Alison Carroll and published in Imprint 1978, number three.

Barbara Hanrahan is an extraordinary woman. About herself and her art she is explicit, direct, penetrating and simple. She shirks nothing. No reviewer can match her in this and few artists have a self-view so devoid of inhibition as her, or her skill to present it.

Barbara Hanrahan’s art, as she says, at its worst can descend into decorative prettiness; at its best it is as forceful and perceptive as herself. The powerful images of sexual confrontation, the interest in ideas of heroes and heroines as pivots of civilisation, and the concern with the processes of generation – of both things and people – are all central to her and her art. The strong forces of Hanrahan’s art are momentarily diffused and subsequently enriched by both the intellectual wit of her images and the careful, loving craftsmanship of her technique. The admixture of all elements, including the basic questioning of human relations, result in complex, sometimes whimsical, sometimes biting, works of art.

Adam, made in 1964, has the strength and directness of image which is later evoked in Wedding Night, of 1977. The crude lines, stark compositional divisions and thick black inks reinforce the pain of the human condition, or rather situation, depicted. The Three Graces, Flying Mother, or even Dream People – with the wonderful line ‘The Girls in Our Town Go to Parties in Pairs’ – are easier meat.

A craftsperson intensely interested in the mechanics of printmaking, Hanrahan has made images in wood engravings, intaglio, and recently silkscreen. She fully exploits the intricacies possible with wood engraving as well as the rough tone and ‘bitten’ line of the etching to emphasise the implications of her images; subject and technique are mutually interdependent. While often working in black and white, Hanrahan is also a skilled colourist: Flying Mother, for example, is made up of pinks, scarlets, orange, lime green and purple, encased in a black border.

Hanrahan works in relative isolation, caring little for the trends and fashions of her peers. She stands as a strong individual in Australian printmaking.

* * *

I began making prints in 1960 at the South Australian School of Art. I had just finished three years of an art teaching course that was split between the art school, the teachers’ college, and the university. Though I knew a lot about general painting and life drawing, geometry and embroidery, hygiene and speech education, I knew little about art. I had never concentrated deeply on one particular discipline; I had always been cut up into tiny pieces as I fulfilled the requirements of the South Australian Education Department.

1960 was an important time for printmaking in Adelaide. In February a graphics studio was re-established at the art school (then housed in the Exhibition Building on North Terrace), under the direction of Udo Sellbach. It seems ironic that one of the most exciting events in the school’s history should have taken place in the last few years of the Exhibition Building’s existence (it was demolished after the school moved to North Adelaide in 1963).

When I think back to that period, the marvellous ritual of printmaking – the queer stinks of meths and turps, the mysteries of acid and resin – is linked with all the out-dated, inconvenient beauty of the old building: its fantastic creeper-swathed façade; Venus and David in the drawing room; the clay modelling room in the basement with its alarming assortment of outsize eyes and noses. It was 1960 – modern times, and Jackson Pollock was hero, but the last vestiges of an era of repoussé and artistic anatomy lingered on.

The studio really came to life in the evenings when a number of young artists – Alun Leach-Jones, Robert Boynes, Jennifer Marshall among them – made their first prints. Sellbach, whose imagination and enthusiasm were infectious, taught lithography; Karen Schepers was in charge of etching. Leach-Jones, the largest person in the class, was usually willing to carry your litho stone from workbench to press. It was a magic time for me as twice a week I went to school on the Terrace to work at my prints.

The first ones I made were woodcuts. They were very German Expressionist in character; I was particularly influenced by Kirchner. I hacked away at drawing-boards, the back of an old wardrobe – nothing was safe. Suddenly I had found a compatible medium. I had never felt any affinity with oil paint and canvas; paper and a more indirect technique suited me perfectly.

Printmaking soon became the most important thing in my life. Drawing my own imaginative world upon the litho stone or scratching at the etching plate with my needle, I felt as brave and free as I had as a child. When I raced from the class to catch the nine o’clock train I wore white cotton gloves to hide my fingers that were stained with printing ink.

From the first, all the work that I did was figurative. The images were always human – usually a female form. In those early days I was worried by two seemingly opposite styles, which reflected two contrasting aspects of my character. On the one hand I would work small and concentrate on detail; on the other I slashed away at my woodblocks – some very strong, tortured female figures evolved. But it was a problem I had to solve: the two styles rarely came together. I was making my tortured women and my delicate ladies by moonlight at the same time.

When I look at the work from these years now, it is the sheer quantity that is impressive. The most important thing was not the end result, but the fact that printmaking had such a hold on me. It was a wonderfully intense period, when I worked out my ideals and beliefs. I felt peculiar because at that time in Adelaide there was no one at a similar stage I could relate to. Abstract expressionism was the accepted mode; perversely, I began a series of linocut nursery rhyme animals – dappled ponies, spirited tab-cats – and accompanying texts.

My ignorant, stubborn belief in myself was strong enough to push me on to London in 1963 to work at the Central School of Art and Design. It was a good time to be there. The brittle witty ‘pop’ art of that time was exactly what I needed to give my rather saccharine images an edge, to push me on to prints that would blend the whimsy and strength that till then had always existed separately in my work. I was stimulated by the early, very fresh prints and paintings of Peter Blake and David Hockney. The Central School, before the introduction of national diploma or degree courses, was a wonderful place to work. It awarded its own Diploma of Etching, and the course attracted artists and students from all over the world. Some of the last few survivors of a vanishing race of master printers worked beside us. Old Bill Collins had pulled etchings for Lionel Lindsay; no one knew more about lithography than Ernie Devenish. Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes-Stanton, two of the foremost English wood engravers, were there, too.

The etchings I made at that time were different from the earlier work in that sex and social comment had crept into them. Their titles are telling: Virgin Pin-Up, Beauty and Wowsers … yet at the same time as these new images evolved, older ones kept coming. From 1960 to the present, a series of female forms constantly recur. They seem like old friends – these grotesquely patterned Earth Mothers, these sturdy floating girls with their shivery-grass hair; they have become part of a private mythology. They are saved from prettiness by a strength of outline, an odd sense of menace – detail stops being merely decorative when it becomes obsessive. Three Graces, a drypoint, belongs to the same period as Adam and Tart and Stars.

After a year back in Adelaide, I returned to London in 1965, where I spent the next eight years. I bought an etching press and set up a studio; I taught part-time at Falmouth School of Art, Cornwall (a very small art school, then, in a lush tropical garden setting) and Portsmouth College of Art. I felt a great affinity with London. I loved the stimulation of a huge city, the healthy sense of anonymity it afforded – the way I felt small and unimportant. I wasn’t pinned down and placed because I had an image to live up to; I was no one and because of this I was able to change.

In a big city it is easy to be alone. Through isolation I rediscovered myself. The Adelaide of my childhood still existed inside my head. Without conscious planning, I stopped making prints and began to write. In London, while snow flew at the pane, I recalled the quince tree by the fowl-house, the geranium by the lavatory … without meaning to, I found I’d become a writer. The Scent of Eucalyptus, a memoir of childhood, was published in 1973.

Three books later, I find that I usually spend a year drawing and making prints, then a year writing. It was through my novels that I recognised the depths of my feeling for Australia, and realised that it was necessary to return again in a physical as well as a mental sense.

Recently I have been making screenprints. It was a challenge working in the medium which, in the past, I disliked most because of the abuse it had suffered. I didn’t want to produce propaganda; I didn’t want some master technician to transform a painting into a print for me through photographic colour separation. I wanted to make prints that were sensitive, personal; I wanted to work as fine as I possibly could, and explore colour – which seems to me to be the screenprint’s greatest contribution to printmaking.

I am concerned in my work with the deep unchanging basics of life. Such prints as Flying Mother and Wedding Night hopefully confront the big things head on – yet gracefully, wittily. Many of the prints I have made express the eternal dichotomy of Life and Death, Reality and Dreams. The heroine of the etching Dream People muses on other worlds from the safeness of her womb-like room, while above her stalks the ‘real’ world – the proper Adelaide people, each part of a pair, who wait to pounce. This theme of dissociation, of this world and that, is treated again in the screenprint Heroes. Valentino and Jimmy and Jean, by dying, inhabit a world that is so much more vivid than that of everyday.

The formal device of dividing the print into two, representing two different areas of experience, is used also in Iris Pearl Dreams of a Wedding. Iris is my grandmother. She features in a series of etchings I am working on now. The most recent Iris and her Garden is made up of six small plates that, grouped together, symbolise Iris – or any woman – at various stages of her life. The garden – Iris’s and Eden’s – is another fundamental theme which I return to again and again. It is so rich in connotations, the image can be read on so many different levels. In the wood engraving Adam and Eve I have come back to beginnings in more ways than one. The woodblock, the medium I started with in 1960, is the most basic of all. Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor, my favourite printmakers, used it for most of their work.