Artist of the Century

Born in 1908, she is the last living link to an artistic explosion that put Scotland on the creative map

By Jim McBeth of the Scottish Daily Mail, 23rd August 2008. (reproduced with permission)

SHE is frail these days, a venerable old lady with delicate hands that once created beautiful sculpture and the inimitable other-worldly drawings  that characterised the artistic fashion of her youth. As she reaches 100  today, Hannah Frank’s hands are idle but then her work is done and her  honoured place in the history of Scottish art is assured as the last  living link to Art Nouveau.

Jessie M King, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret and her sister Frances Macdonald, were the great stars of the decorative new movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Glasgow led the way and
Frank, who was born in the city, embarked on a career that would span eight decades.

The simple, elongated lines of her ethereal figures defined the zeitgeist and built a bridge to the era of Modernism before she embraced sculpting – a discipline she was guided to by Benno Schotz, the great Scottish sculptor who is regarded as a giant in the field.

In a career lasting from the late 1920s to the early years of the new millennium, her work has been exhibited on three continents, an artistic legacy that makes her one of Scotland’s most significant artists.

‘When there is a discussion about 20th-century art, her work will always be considered,’ says Sandy Moffat, the former head of painting at Glasgow School of Art, where Frank studied in the late 1920s.

His colleague, Mark O’Neill, head of arts and museums for Glasgow, which is absorbing more of her work into the civic collection, adds: ‘She is a significant figure in the history of art in the city and her work is delightful.

‘Hannah is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s treasures and it’s amazing to think that the last connection to the Glasgow Girls should be with us still.’ Today, when Frank receives her birthday card from the Queen, the
redoubtable Jewish artist can look back on a long life and sparkling career. ‘My ambition was to leave footsteps in the sands of time,’ she says, quoting one of her favourite lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

But the diary of Hannah Frank was not always easy to write. She had to overcome prejudices that would be regarded by modern society as unthinkable. Her father was a Russian émigré, who fled persecution to settle in Glasgow in 1905. As young Hannah grew up, she realised persecution of Jews was not confined to pre-revolution Russia.

In her teenage years, the burgeoning artist suffered the routinely casual sexism and bigotry that dictated Jewish girls should not be given higher education. In spite of it, the brilliant pupil was accepted by Glasgow University, where she began studying to be a teacher, a career she gave up to become a fulltime artist. Her father, who by now was running a photographic shop at the corner of Glasgow’s Saltmarket, supported her ambition but counselled her to get a career and pursue art as a sideline.

Persuading the executive of Glasgow School of Art to allow a Jewish girl to study there in the evenings presented a high hurdle. She recalls:

‘There were no Jewish artists. I remember how upset my mother was, having to ask one of our neighbours – a city bailie – if he could help me get in. My mother said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.’ But the
bailie’s influence worked and Frank was allowed to study.

She reflects: ‘Being a woman and a Jew made me a one- off.’ Among people whose religion and culture combine to assume the dimension of nationality, she could not escape her roots: ‘In spite of being born in Glasgow, I regarded myself then as Jewish rather than Scottish. It was something you could not escape.’ Her religion definitely added more steps on the climb to success: ‘You mustn’t think that Germany was the only place where people discriminated against Jews. I remember standing in a grocer’s shop and hearing a couple complaining that those Jews were buying up all the fruit. But the things that happened to the Jews in Germany were especially terrible and it had an impact on my work.’ Works such as ‘Flight’ (1939) demonstrate that dark side, with grim figures reflecting the plight of the fleeing refugees. Yet despite the gathering clouds over Europe, life for Frank, with her father, her mother and three siblings was happy.

But she burned to be an artist and the studious girl based many of her drawing on passages from the classical poets and the lyrical language of the Old Testament.

Between 1927 and 1932, she produced fortnightly illustrations for Glasgow University magazine. It was these pen-and-ink drawings, with their echo of the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, that helped build her career.
And this week that career will be celebrated in her home town when her life and work will take centre-stage in a series of celebratory events, including a new exhibition.

An anthology of her art, Hannah Frank: Footsteps on the Sands of Time – A Hundredth Birthday Gallimaufry, was published yesterday and she is to be honoured by MSPs with a reception at the Scottish parliament.

She quips: ‘I’m flattered – I hope I’m alive to see it all.’ The honours are deserved, according to Gavin Wallace, head of literature for the Scottish Arts Council, who says of Frank’s art: ‘The dark and beautiful heart of Glasgow sang out from every work. We are delighted to celebrate an important artist.’ Mr O’Neill adds: ‘Hannah emerges with honours from the illustrious cluster of Glasgow Girls such as Margaret Mackintosh, Frances Macdonald, Jessie M King and Bessie McNicol. She is the sole survivor of a group who experienced at first hand the momentum of a
European art movement.

‘Her drawings, even as a teenager, were similar to King. Hannah was very modern and, of course, her sculpture was influenced by the great Schotz. ‘Because there were so many “stars” of the period, it is inevitable she is
sometimes regarded as less well known than them. It would be nice to redress the balance, in honour of her birthday.’ Frank’s pen-and-ink drawings, done between the 1920s and the 1940s, and her sculptures, dating from the 1950s to the early 2000s, are exhibited all over the world.

But many of her early drawings have languished in suitcases. The new exhibition, which opens today, includes 17 recently discovered works dating from the 1920s.

The artist’s niece, Fiona, says: ‘We’ve discovered many of her artworks in old suitcases. I’d noticed pieces of sugar paper and assumed they were packing material. To my amazement, they were revealed as coloured
drawings of figures.

‘We think she did them during life classes at Glasgow School of Art. She used vibrant colours, quite unlike her trademark black-and white work.’ Frank refers to the drawings as the ‘selfish children’ she never had with her late husband Lionel Levy, whom she married in 1939: ‘We did not have children. That is my biggest disappointment in life. Lionel was a good man and I could find no fault with him.’

The newly discovered artworks are more precious because Frank all but gave up drawing in the early 1950s to concentrate on sculpting after being influenced by Schotz, who had seen her modelling clay.

Her sculptures are reminiscent of Schotz’s unfussy forms. One work – of a woman – will also be seen for the first time in the exhibition.

Fiona Frank adds: ‘It was found on top of a wardrobe. It has its arms stuck out and a big fat bottom. It looks a bit like a crucifix. When Auntie looks at it, she says, “Oh, that’s not like me. It looks a bit goy-ish (non- Jewish)”.’ Frank may have learned from the best but she was  resolutely her own woman. She says: ‘I just did what I wanted and, if people liked it, so much the better. My advice to young artists is always to do what makes them happy.’ Like the work of earlier Romantics, her drawings and sculptures were inspired by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English poetry – Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Edgar Allan Poe, whose work she learned by heart.

Frank’s younger self was characterised by daydreams of ‘the boys I liked who didn’t fancy me. I thought I was ugly – I certainly wasn’t beautiful. I knew I wasn’t good-looking but, like my Jewishness, I don’t really know
how much it influenced my work. ‘You can’t be Jewish without knowing it and thinking about it. It’s not that I’m religious but it’s like something that won’t go away. ‘There were no Jewish artists in my early days. I shunned models and always worked from imagination. The figures in my works come from poems I’d read. Sometimes, I would think of the images during a walk or in bed. I would also read the Old Testament for its beautiful and
lyrical poetry.’

Her earliest drawings were signed with a nom de plume – Al Aaraaf. It was inspired by Poe’s poem about the mysterious star, discovered by Danish astronomer Tycho Brake in 1572, which appeared suddenly, attained in a few days a brilliancy surpassing that of Jupiter and then disappeared.

It is, she says, a fitting analogy of her life: ‘That will do me. I had a few days of brilliancy and I’ll disappear, never to be seen again.’ .

Hannah Frank, a Glasgow Artist: 100th Birthday Exhibition is at the chapel of Glasgow University, Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm; Sundays, 12pm-4pm, until Oct 11  (also open 9-11 a.m. on Sat 11th October).