Visual Art

On the 30th anniversary of her death, a survey of printed works gathers together the subversive, suburban world of artist and author Barbara Hanrahan. By Walter Marsh.

Barbara Hanrahan’s Bee-stung Lips

An installation view of the Barbara Hanrahan exhibition in Adelaide.
Credit: Brianna Speight

“Life, under its sham layer of studied conformity was strangely original, strangely unworldly,” writes Barbara Hanrahan in the final pages of her 1973 memoir The Scent of Eucalyptus, the first of 15 books published in her lifetime.

It’s an affectionate appraisal of her early years living in Adelaide’s working-class western suburbs in a house shared with her grandmother, great aunt and mother. But the line could equally apply to Hanrahan’s first creative outlet as an artist and printmaker, where she carved out a three-decade deep body of work that this survey exhibition, Bee-stung Lips: Barbara Hanrahan works on paper 1960-1991, now contemplates 30 years after her death.

Pieced together from the collections of Flinders University, the Art Gallery of South Australia and a variety of private collectors, Bee-stung Lips follows Hanrahan from art school experiments in printmaking to the hand-coloured etchings made in her final years. The intervening years pollinated her work with the vibrancy of 1960s and ’70s pop culture and politics of second-wave feminism.

Although Hanrahan spent much of her adult life living and working in London and Melbourne, these 180-plus works often summon the tensions and energies found within suburbs and sitting rooms of that small, parochial and blindingly Anglocentric southern capital, idling in an insular lull between World War II and a loosened White Australia policy a century after it was first planted on unceded Kaurna land. Her Adelaide was a world of verandahs, tramlines and gardens filled with wattle and gums alongside introduced rosebushes, geraniums, lemon and quince trees. And in the houses behind them were men, women and children stewing in the stifling constraints of their genders and class.

In Hanrahan’s liberating hands the suburban becomes surreal. Her work is a bridge between John Brack, Reg Mombassa and the incendiary sexual and domestic politics of Mary Leunig. Her often ornate colours and lines breathe chaotir c life into tangled greenery that creeps up from dirt and spills out of vases, into men with Brylcreem-combed hair and the women with curls and waves set in place by night-time rituals of bobby pins and nets. Eyes boggle, bodies are bared, colours pop and fizz as she seeks out the “rainbow patches in [her] concrete quilt”.

Created almost a decade after her grandmother’s death, Iris Pearl Dreams of a Wedding (1977) imagines her forebear’s younger self reclining half-dressed on a settee surrounded by household pets. A wedding photo hangs on the wall behind her, which Hanrahan re-creates across the page’s top half in faded sepia as the bridal party stares ahead with uncanny blankness. Iris is again front and centre in the 1978 etching Dog of Darkness, this time looking up – or is she rolling her eyes? – at black-and-white figures from her family tree, including a young Barbara herself. The hound bounds over them all, omen-like.

Hanrahan frequently picks over the heteronormative rites and structures that so ill-served the people in her life. In a 1977 print entitled Mother and Father, Hanrahan draws on and around a posed studio portrait of her mother and late father, peering past the outer shell of their Sunday best to reveal the naked, sexual beings nested within. There’s a deliberate abrasiveness to Wedding Night (1977), which lays a goateed husband beside his virginal wife, him with mouth agape, her with gritted teeth. Other taboo-prodding couplings range from the bestial Beauty and Bunyip (1977) to the oedipal Baby Doll’s (1978); Hanrahan contemplates the fluidity of genders and bodies in the psychedelic Moss-Haired Girl (1977).

Many of the exhibition’s most vivid moments come from this London-based period in the middle of her career, such as the dreamlike Flying Mother (1976) with its giant subject hovering over the green grass and purple waters of London’s Serpentine lake and Kensington Gardens, her skin marked with ferns and flowers (I thumb through the catalogue to check whether the “Kensington Gardens” named in the work is the London original, or the leafy Adelaide suburb named after it). As with Mother and Father we can see “Baby” gestating inside her belly, clasping a handful of posies as a watch ticks and tocks on its mother’s wrist.

A more haunted take on maternity is seen in the 1986 linocut Birth, which gives the viewer a midwife’s perspective as a craggy-toothed, wide-eyed mother stares pleadingly at us and her child crawls out from between her legs, waving.

Flying Mother and Moss-Haired Girl also share Hanrahan’s fascination with nature. In works such as Flora (1970), Conversation with Flowers (1974), Woman Tree (1989) and Summertime Girls (1991) we see a cast of women at one with the plant and animal world, sometimes literally, their skin and bodies overgrown with botanical motifs of sunflowers and vines. The botanic gardens of Adelaide and London blur into visions of a jungled, William Blake-inspired Eden, and in these oases we encounter Adams and Eves and angels – glimpses of a spiritual counterpoint to all the iconoclasm that grew in the years before her death from cancer at age 51. Today Hanrahan’s name is commemorated with, among other tributes, a university building, a laneway and an annual literary fellowship.

The Scent of Eucalyptus remains in print, albeit with the characterful illustrations by its author that graced earlier editions swapped out for a more generic photograph of gumleaves.

Last year, the National Gallery of Australia’s landmark exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now featured Hanrahan’s 1967 piece Mother 1933. A later portrait with the same name, made a decade later in 1976, also appears in Bee-stung Lips, where it takes on a deeper significance as the tip of a complicated iceberg. This is an exhibition that starkly rejects the smoothing effect of time on an artist’s less comfortable edges, and is a fitting tribute to Hanrahan’s determination to prick the boil of the world she knew in search of something more weird, visceral and truthful.

In The Scent of Eucalyptus, Hanrahan reflects on how the trappings of 1940s Adelaide affected the people around her: “My mother and grandmother were strangely innocent. Their world was narrow and circumscribed; they were lost once they strayed from their familiar paths.” It’s a world that was “bound by the birth and death, engagement and approaching marriage announcements in the Advertiser”.

Hanrahan herself may have been just as fixated on questions of births, deaths and marriages, but as Bee-stung Lips demonstrates, any innocence was enthusiastically shed. And who needs a newspaper when your life’s work is its own paper of record?

Bee-stung Lips: Barbara Hanrahan works on paper 1960-1991 is at the Flinders University Museum of Art, Adelaide, until October 1.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Paper trail".

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Walter Marsh is a writer based on Kaurna Country (Adelaide).