Reviews The most fascinating interspecific ecosystems


A PALPABLE cast of women inhabit the work of Barbara Hanrahan, frequently joined by their “dads”, lovers, valentines and husbands.

Since his father passed away the day after his first birthday, leaving Hanrahan (1939-1991) to grow up with his maternal grandmother, mother and great aunt in the working-class Adelaide suburb of Thebarton, he is no surprise that matriarchy dominates.

Innocent and daring, his characters jostle, quiver and hum in this important salon investigation at the Flinders University Museum of Art (FUMA).

180 works on paper – woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs, lithographs, etchings, drypoint and rarely seen drawings, paintings and collages – produce a sanctuary of Hanrahan’s bold visual language.

Their breadth and depth, texture and translucency demand an embodied commitment.

You have to approach, stretch and bend, breathe almost the same air as the works you are observing.

This spectacle asks to be savored, to have time to soak up the spiciness of ladies with conical breasts, garter belts and corsets; the biting sadness of torrential tears; the bitter aftertaste of the hypocritical expectations of society; the sweetness of childhood memories.

Encouraged by her mother’s work as a commercial artist in a department store, Hanrahan initially trained as an art teacher.

After graduating in 1960, she enrolled in evening classes at the South Australian School of Art, making her first linocuts, engravings and lithographs.

Independent of mind and more influenced by the drama of German Expressionism than by Australian printmakers such as Margaret Preston, Adelaide Perry and Ethel Spowers, Hanrahan set off for London a few years later to pursue her creative dreams.

Taking a taste for pop art and burlesque, she is not so much a follower of the Women’s Art Movement as she works in parallel, questioning beauty, social conventions and sexual mores.

She regularly visits Australia to exhibit until her return to live in Adelaide with her partner in the late 1970s.

It seems strange to recall that in 1964, Sydney art dealer Barry Stern refused to show Hanrahan in his “family gallery” or, after purchasing many works, Adelaide gallery owner Kym Bonython received a notice. legal not to exhibit his prints of naked men.

Australian artists of her day, such as ‘femail’ artist Pat Larter and Charis, worked with sexually explicit images in drawing, collage, photography and video. But Hanrahan’s characters are often oblivious, naive, or – as in Noces de nuit (1977) – very clumsy.

Ironically, while being labeled risky, Hanrahan was simultaneously criticized for its overly decorative image and form, as if its technical excellence portrayed a loophole.

Her technical feat is breathtaking here in etchings such as Earthmother (1975) and perfectly recorded multicolored silkscreens such as Moss-haired Girl (1977).

Hanrahan’s interspecific ecosystems are populated by celestial bodies and English and Australian flora and fauna.

An intertwined woman becomes a tree, branches spring from human trunks and crevices, vulvae turn into flowers, birds nest in fibrous hair, a man lives in the moon, Adam and Eve frolic before the Fall, angels float like Chagall in troubled skies, flower-studded women soar like Ophelia through the Serpentine in Hyde Park in London.

In his work, the flapping of the dove and the buzzing of the bee are as vital as the ebb and flow of the tides or the bloom of the sun: all anchored in the order and fruitfulness of nature and its cycles of life and death.

Matching, mirroring, and doubling happen again. Like Frida Kahlo, Hanrahan is fascinated by birth, self-birth, and self-realization.

From her birth in incredibly unconventional linocut (1986) to women depicted with fully formed children inside their wombs or on their clothes, Hanrahan celebrates the curious inner child we all carry with us.

Over three decades, Hanrahan has revealed her adventurous, longing, fragile and dreamy self in over 400 pictures and 15 books. Her work frequently returned to portrayals of her grandmother, Iris Pearl, and she continued to explore the psychological underbelly of family lineages and the various neighborhood characters who impressed her childhood.

She exorcised the socially demonic forces of decorum, loosening the constriction of gender stereotypes, and through spiritual practices in the West and the East, came to a peaceful acceptance of her own terminal illness.

The works produced in Melbourne in Barbara’s later years are beating heartily. Celebrating her mastery of the stroke and her intelligence of touch, Girl with Dogs (1989) and The Angel (1991) are iconic Australian images.

This ambitious investigation aims to ensure that Barbara Hanrahan becomes a household name.

Melinda Rackham is Adjunct Research Professor, UniSA Creative, University of South Australia, University of South Australia. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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