After Barbara

Encountering a real artist

My art is something precious; something locked behind my tongue.
Barbara Hanrahan, Sea Green (Fontana Books, 1980)

TWO YEARS AGO, a spiritual experience punctuated my otherwise secular existence. I was standing in a strange hallway. The walls were covered with framed prints of the most absorbing detail and colour. The floors were bare, so it looked like an upside-down house with many rugs up high and the ceiling beneath out feet. The hallway belonged to the sculptor Jo Steele, partner of the late Barbara Hanrahan.

Hanrahan was an Adelaide-born artist who made hundreds of prints and published fifteen books. She wrote of womanhood in a way that made most people uncomfortable. She describes squeezing pimples, sweating under nice clothes, menstruation, ‘bruised plum nipples’ and the ‘beard between her legs’. It’s as if she stood before a mirror, a representative of Woman, and poked at all the loose bits, frowning and smiling in turn. Musing in her diary, Hanrahan wrote, ‘the personal is the only true thing’. She made herself her own muse and didn’t apologise for doing so.

I was standing in that hallway because I needed Jo’s signature in order to quote some Hanrahan material I’d unearthed in the State Library of South Australia.

‘Do you think you could send it to me in an email?’ I said, having been given his home number by the librarian.

He laughed. ‘I don’t own a computer, or a mobile phone. I only have this landline so you will have to come here if you want my signature.’

Later, Jo would tell me that the reason he had no computer or mobile was so he could shut out the world. He didn’t know who the Prime Minister was and didn’t want me to tell him. ‘It’s too depressing,’ he said, ‘there’s too much sadness.’

I HAD COME to Adelaide, all the way from Perth, to rediscover Barbara Hanrahan on behalf of the field of Australian literary studies. Imbued with an inflated sense of the importance of my research and armed with a romantic vision of wrenching her from the grips of oblivion, I dreamt about returning Barbara Hanrahan to the lips of Australian literature lovers. My efforts, however, followed a succession of attempts by various people to reignite enthusiasm for Barbara, which themselves went unnoticed. Marion Halligan put it well when, in 1992, she wrote in The Canberra Times, ‘the loss of Barbara Hanrahan is the loss of a creator of strange worlds in the context of daily life, and one of our finest wordsmiths’. In 2010, Craig Munro similarly described Hanrahan as having ‘now largely slipped from view’. I suspect the lack of interest in her writing has something to do with her style. Flickering, densely lyrical, she can lose sight of narrative and wander into unexpected places – like some of the women she describes. In fact, much of her writing is about ‘for ever walking…looking at the ground’, plucking at the world’s flotsam and giving it a good hard stare.

ABOUT A YEAR ago, Australian Book Review asked Australian writers to name their favourite forgotten writer, and Gail Jones named Barbara. Jones writes that in The Scent of Eucalyptus (UQP, 1973), Hanrahan’s first autobiographical novel, it is ‘the minute and the hidden, the modern and the particular’ that make up the ‘dense life-world of a child’. Here, she says, is an entire era ‘preserved in fastidious and undiscriminating detail’. That era spanned almost forty years from the 1950s. Barbara died in 1991 – a few months before I was born. She travelled to London and returned to Adelaide with a reputation. She did printmaking workshops at the art school and the girls were in awe of her angelic appearance, her wispy voice and the strong things she said. To Barbara, it seemed that a ‘Woman’s Art Movement can only be of service to women who are weak’. Such labels, she wrote, were shackles that would bind an artist who happens to be female, ‘badges of respectability in the society we live in’.

In her memoir, Michael and Me and the Sun (UQP, 1992), she summarises these thoughts neatly: ‘In Adelaide I’d been labelled all my life… But Art didn’t heed the labels, and reached out to get me, too.’ In an acidic tone she writes of male art students parading around, and their predictable reactions to her prints of genitalia and pregnancy. Her mother, grandmother, great aunt Reece, neighbours and peers receive candid treatment. Adelaide was a provincial town then, a tight knot, and few had the gall to write about those they knew with such unflinching clarity.

A thinly veiled Jo appears, in Sea Green and elsewhere. I didn’t ask him how he felt about their spats being spread out across the page like messy lunches. Besides, she always revealed her own lowness – sacrificed herself – first, as in this passage from Michael and Me and the Sun:

I was two people. One part of me seemed content being the nice girl who just wanted to stay at home and be with them [mother, grandmother and great aunt], and sit in the garden and pull out the soursobs and weed round the grape hyacinths under the prunus trees. But always, right from the start, there’d been this other person who wanted to be like my dead father – wanted not to care about the little things like Have you got clean fingernails?… Are the skirting-boards dusty? That part of me got free when it made the prints, and had made me feel I had to get away.

Sea Green and Michael and Me and the Sun work in tandem, picturing Jo and Barbara separately fleeing class-conscious Adelaide and acting out rebelliousness in London and Europe. They are part of a rich, visceral body of work. Yet, despite Peter Goldsworthy dubbing her the most original contemporary Australian writer in 1988, Hanrahan’s art vanished with her. There is now the Barbara Hanrahan Building at the University of South Australia, and the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for South Australian Writers administered by the Adelaide Festival and state government. There is a Barbara Hanrahan Lane too. Her name haunts the corridors of the city but seldom registers with its inhabitants. To say or hear ‘Hanrahan’ and to know her work is like a secret handshake. I wonder how many people read that response from Gail Jones and went out to buy a Hanrahan novel. Or tried to, as most are out of print.

TUESDAY, MILD WEATHER. I went to the State Library of South Australia and found the room that held recordings. The man at the counter took my slip with call numbers and wordlessly retrieved the items for me. He pushed a plastic dish across the counter, similar to the ones you use at airport security. The recordings were on cassette. I looked at the librarian, who shrugged. ‘If it ain’t broke,’ he said. I took my tray to one of the cassette players and fumbled with the machine. Each push of a button seemed momentous, so audible as to be irreversible. I pressed the button with the forward-facing triangle and someone began to speak. It was Barbara, in 1984.

Jo’s signature would let me use that recording of Barbara talking to Susanne Hayes at Adelaide Writers’ Week. In the interview, Barbara describes her writing and painting as a ‘balance between the conscious and subconscious minds’. She talks about how she grasps at magic and the supernatural in her books, and how, most powerfully, she makes herself ‘naked on the page’. Barbara employed her skills as a visual artist to play with concepts of writing, creation and the feminine, and to examine the position of women in the art-world in Australia and abroad. ‘I want to wake people up from their lives,’ she said. In an interview with Radio National, Deborah McCullough describes how she met Barbara in 1983. When Barbara asked her to respond to her prints before the opening of an exhibition, Deborah said they were the works of a woman about being a woman. This ‘self-consciousness was really exciting because it was something that had been denied to women’, McCullough says. Women ‘had not, until recently, been able to reflect upon ourselves, our lives; we’ve been actively discouraged from doing so’.

WHEN JO ANSWERED the door and invited me inside, there was a smile playing on his lips. It was the smile of knowing that the place I was about to enter was like no place I’d been before. He seemed to know I was about to form one of my sharpest memories. In that house, all the things I’d packed into the ‘I’ of me were rearranged – the kind of rearrangement TS Eliot identifies every time a new work is added to the literary canon. In my memory, the hallway of Barbara Hanrahan’s home extends into infinity, a never-ending tunnel of paper and ink.

Barbara’s prints depict the strangeness of ordinary women. They picture something similar to the weirdness of repeating a word over and over until the sound becomes so alien that it’s no longer the word but waves. Her novels do this too, paying particular attention to the nuances of emotion and the body, of habit and the things we do. The small acts of daily life become so absurd that we wonder why we do them. In Michael and Me and the Sun, Hanrahan is given an ironing lesson, learning that ‘you did the little bits, collars and cuffs, first; then went on to the open stretches of sleeves, front, back,’ and on and on. She describes her grandmother dressing for town in a heavy skirt suit and stockings on a hot day, squeezing her feet into shoes too small. One of the most striking images comes from The Scent of Eucalyptus, in which the protagonist describes pinching the head of a pimple until the ‘yellow worm wriggles out’. She has a penchant for the things that make us squirm. In that hallway, the feeling of being hemmed in by all those laid-bare women, all that frankness, was something unearthly.

Jo gave me a tour of the house that he and Barbara had shared. I soon discovered that the entire house was furnished with her prints. In the middle of the each room was a sculpture – elegant structures, whose interlocking parts moved in harmony. They revealed Jo’s background as an engineer. With the prints on the walls and the sculptures stationed on the floor, it was as if she had made their mutual container and he filled it. I mentioned this.

‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘Very much the opposite. Barbara is the oxygen in this place, a firm breeze. She even moves things around.’

He told me how one day he found a sculpture of his had moved and he was powerless to move it back. Then, at a posthumous exhibition of her prints, Barbara meddled with the perfectly hung frames so that they appeared off balance.

‘Everyone was perplexed,’ said Jo, laughing. ‘Completely dumbfounded. But I knew it was her. It was definitely her.’

It didn’t seem out of place, this kind of talk. It was exactly the kind of talk appropriate to a conversation about Barbara, because a strong spirituality guided her art. Not a religiosity, although she was a cultural Christian, but rather a sense of the inexplicable. As she said in an interview with Elaine Lindsay, ‘the thing that intrigues me most about living, and about writing, and everything I do, [is] just the strangeness of the world’.

JO AND I sat on a pair of lounge chairs, the only furniture in the front room. The chairs were positioned on the far right looking at the courtyard that separated the house from the gallery. We talked about Barbara. He told me about her gentleness and fire, her sharp mind. I said how strange it was to hear her voice on those recordings. Someone who had only existed in print before suddenly had a sound. He spoke of the way she would work, sometimes in a fever and sometimes laboriously, painfully. I knew this, having read her diaries and all her books, which are largely autobiographical, but it was truer coming from him. We talked about the family, and when I saw a picture of Barbara, her grandmother and a dog, I asked if the dog was Tinker.

‘Yes, Tinker,’ he said. ‘How did you know?’

‘I’ve looked at all the photographs held in the state library collection. I think I could identify most of the family.’

‘I’ve never liked photographs,’ he said. ‘They don’t capture the essence of a person.’

There is one photograph he does treasure, and he led me back down the hallway to a small room at the front of the house. Inside was a single bed covered with a patchwork quilt, a chest of drawers and a bedside table with a lamp. Instead of pointing downwards as most table lamps do, the bulb was angled ahead. I followed its line of sight and landed upon a large canvas of Barbara in her garden in the 1970s. It was a beautiful photograph. We were silent for a short while.

‘It’s the first thing I see when I wake up, and the last thing before I sleep,’ he said. I imagined him at night, turning lights off as he moved around the house until the only light left on was the lamp that shone on Barbara, her young face, her flared trousers.

In the other rooms of the house were a number of closets filled with first editions of Barbara’s books. Jo let me rummage around and thumb through their creamy pages. He smiled at me. Then he gave me first editions of three of my favourite books. We wrapped them carefully in plastic bags because it was threatening rain outside. We felt the visit was coming to a close. I nearly forgot to get his signature for the library sources.

After I left the house, a good friend of mine called. She wanted to know how I was getting on in Adelaide, and I poured the story into my phone. She was elated; she had the most beautiful habit of bursting with laughter and exclaiming at your happiness, as if the thing that was most joyous to her was the happiness of her friends. We talked it over. I said that standing in the hallway was like that moment at the optometrist when they say, ‘Now one…or…two?’ – and, click, you can see. She said I must write to Jo, start a correspondence, or at the very least tell him the profound impact of that thirty-minute visit. I told her I would, undoubtedly. She was pleased, laughed, her voice was like music; she said something about formative moments. The next month, she died.

It took a very long time to write that letter, the one my friend insisted I send. I was worried that the significance of that moment extended beyond my vocabulary. By the end of last year there were sixteen iterations of ‘Dear Jo,’ stuffed in my desk drawer. At times I considered posting all my failed attempts in the hope he would understand.

Finally, I posted a letter. It reads as this piece does, relaying the story from my perspective. Perhaps he will reply with his own perspective. Perhaps it will be radically different.

I SPOKE TO someone not long ago, got a bit existential. We talked about spirituality, and how it is a moment such as the one in the hallway that makes you realise being secular is just another worldview, another lens through which we peer, in the words of Peter Atkins, ‘deeply...into the heart of the universe’. This person commented that at times his secularism felt like the default position for those still searching for something, whether it be something named or something merely felt. It did not feel accidental. Given Barbara Hanrahan’s work, her obsession with lived experience and the things we cannot quite explain, it felt as if there was something cosmic going on, at least inside my head. Perhaps that is what made this experience so profound – the idea of having chanced upon what I was unknowingly searching for.

I revisit the hallway when my mind is not fully occupied with the present. I go back, try to ensure that the corners of the memory remain sharp and varnished. Try to remember Jo’s kind eyes. Feel my appetite for wonder restored.

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