Hannah at 100

As Glasgow gears up to celebrate a milestone for artist and sculptor Hannah Frank, BRIAN MORTON goes in search of clues to her remarkable creative vision.

IT MAY BE THAT SHE DIDN'T expect or plan to stick around quite as long as she has. The very earliest of her work to be seen publicly was signed "AL AARAAF". This was the name given to a star identified by the astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572, visible for about a year and a half before it disappeared back into the black sky. It's also the name given in the Koran to a star that marks the mid-point between paradise and hell. And it's the name of the title poem of the very first collection published by Edgar Allan Poe, whose own career flared as briefly and as combustibly as Hannah Frank's has been patient and long.

I wanted to ask one of Scotland's best-loved artists, who celebrates her 100th birthday on 23 August, why she had chosen that particular pseudonym for the poems and drawings that were published in the Glasgow University magazine GUM when she was a student there in the late 1920s. I knew from elsewhere that Poe and his failed, fractured epic had a special significance for her, but I wanted to hear it from Hannah herself. I assumed an interview would not be likely.

To my surprise, an e-mail from her niece, Fiona Frank, who has usually been present at recent media meetings but who lives in England, provided a phone number for Hannah at the Glasgow care home where she lives, alone since the death of her husband, Lionel Levy. It came with the gentle reminder that Aunt Hannah's memory wasn't all it had been. After a good deal of hesitation, I called and had the tables sweetly but comprehensively turned. Instead of running through the usual roster of questions – influences, politics, creative longevity, Poe, Scotland as a locus in European rather than merely British art – I was gently questioned about myself. Each "I'm sorry, I don't really remem-ber ..." was followed by a neatly connected enquiry about my own background, work, home, family and even religion. I think a too-long question about Poe and the Koran left her with the impression that I was a Muslim.

Poe is the key, though; I'm convinced. That poem, Al Aaraaf, is concerned above all with what might be called theodicy, or justifying the ways of God to man, but in a strikingly humanist way. Its main concerns are the absolute primacy of duty and the fate of those who inhabit Al Aaraaf, who are neither blessed nor damned but who fall into that ignored middle ground that in Calvinist theology is identified as the "preterite".

Frank's work down the years has reflected these concerns at the profoundest level. If she herself has been critically overlooked – though widely admired and loved – her work is also in some way concerned with the preterite, those who fall outside the heroic and tragic and who are merely human.

Her last sculpture, completed just before she retired from active making in 2000, was the plain Standing Figure, shown only in three-quarter view. It could as easily be kneeling to pray, but with an undramatic simplicity, quiet, humble, private, unaware of our gaze. It also carries just the faintest shadow of ambiguity: actually a dual figure, it may be under some duress, kneeling before a gun rather than in front of some devotional object; or it may again be rising up out of the clay, a return of the repressed.

This doubleness of vision is evident in Frank's work from the very beginning. Her figures often have a spectral cast and are often set against cosmological backgrounds, hinting that these are figures who somehow exist not quite in the flesh and not quite enthroned in their eternal home. There is a note of melancholy in even the brightest and most sanguine of her drawings, and everywhere there is that same feeling of humility and chastened self-possession. Her figures make no claims on us beyond those of human contact. Portraiture represents only a tiny proportion of her work, not because she lacked contacts or commissions, but simply because she was never drawn to the great and the good nearly as much as she was to the middle mass. For the same reason, she does not claim to speak for the downtrodden or the victims of history, though she has had every right and reason to.

Poe merely pretended to be Jewish, in order to give his orphaned nature a certain mystique and to claim a stake in an intellectual destiny. Frank accepted her Jewish heritage straightforwardly. Poe visited Scotland only briefly with his foster father. Hannah was born here. Her father, Charles Frank, was a refugee from the Tsarist pogroms in Russia who settled in Glasgow and established a business in the Saltmarket, making and repairing cameras and other optical and mechanical instruments. Hannah was born in the Gorbals in 1908, the eldest of four children and Charles and Miriam Frank's only daughter. In one family photo, strikingly composed, she stands behind the boys, one arm resting almost protectively on the back of her father's chair, the other spread loosely to the side, an unconsciously iconic female pose as well as a striking visual geometry. Her intelligence and personality are unmistakable.

She went to Strathbungo School and Albert Road Academy before matriculating at Glasgow University to study art. After graduating, she went to Jordanhill Training College, where "AL AARAAF" contributed more black-and-white images to the in-house magazine, the New Dominie. These are tough images, in keeping with the Art Nouveau sensibility of the time, studiously modern but also – a further connection to Poe – strikingly transhistorical. One sees echoes of icon painting and poster imagery in the work, reminders that her roots lay in a largely pre-literate culture in which imagery almost always had a didactic intent. After qualifying, she taught for a time in Glasgow's east end, but also began taking night classes at the School of Art, where she won the James McBey Prize for her increasingly bold and resonant wood-engraved prints.

Her creative destiny, though, was confirmed when she began taking sculpture classes with Paul Zunterstein and met Scotland's most distinguished sculptor, Benno Schotz. For a half century, from 1950 to her retirement in 2000, sculpture was her exclusive medium, though her drawings and engravings continued to have a currency in Jewish publications and prints.

I first encountered her work in a print on my father's office wall at Glasgow High School. Yellowed and torn at the edges, it portrayed a female figure, whose hair seemed to merge with both sky and ground, in long waves that had an almost mathematical precision. This, perhaps, is the greatest single creative legacy of her marriage in 1939 to Lionel Levy, who introduced her to aspects of modern science that melded strikingly with her own original concerns. Here again, not to push the point too hard, is a connection to Poe, whose apparent mysticism and embrace of the irrational was balanced by a profound absorption in the scientific and technical culture of his time, an element of his work, and of Frank's, that is often overlooked.

I can remember no other detail about that poster, and have been unable to identify it since, but it has been said, and my father confirmed it, that Frank's work was popular with Glasgow University students of a subsequent generation. Like Roger Dean or Storm Thorgerson later, she seemed to speak to the aspirations and dilemmas of young people who'd grown up at the outer edges of the fascist tempest.

Glasgow and Clydebank were at the limit of the Luftwaffe's effective range, but they felt the blast all the more keenly for that, and Frank's sculptural work has a quality that can best be described as "post-war". That is a subjective reaction rather than a stylistic or broadly cultural one, but it seems to work. There is little attempt to buy into the "Art Booms with the Guns" spirit that pervaded wartime Glasgow, a sense that creative and political imperatives were met in the studio with a new vividness of perception. Instead, and typically, Frank concentrated on those aspects of the period's history that continued on into the uncertain peace where her ancestral homeland became a new, world-threatening enemy.

Frank's politics were, like Shostakovich's, populist at heart. Her commitment was to the people of the modern Al Aaraaf, neither good nor evil, but the human equivalent of dark matter, which, as Poe intuited in his masterpiece Eureka, comprises the bulk of all there is, even if it is not seen. It has been Frank's genius to reveal it, steadily, unflinchingly and with the most rational kind of compassion.

The long dialogue of Poe's poem Al Aaraaf, with its skyscraping philosophy and apparent other-worldliness, ends on a distinctively human note, a stanza that is often dismissed as merely a neat closing flourish. Was this what Hannah Frank responded to?

"Thus, in discourse, the lovers whiled away

The night that waned and waned and brought no day.

They fell: for Heaven to them no hope imparts

Who hear not for the beating of their hearts."

Those words seem to go to the heart of her life and work as well. Happy birthday.

&#149 Hannah Frank: A Glasgow Artist – 100th Birthday Exhibition is at Glasgow University, 23 August to 11 October. Tel: 0141-330 5419 or visit www.hannahfrank.org.uk