Exhibition review: Bee Stung Lips – Barbara Hanrahan, FUMA, Adelaide

The print maker's short but intensely creative life continues to inspire.

Bee-stung lips is a visual feast that can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the arts. Hanrahan’s work explores themes of love, family, and sexuality from a deeply personal perspective. It is this interior view that makes this work so special and gives it a broad appeal. Hanrahan’s work displays maturity and intellect in her insightful observations of the human psyche and is a search for joy in an otherwise harsh world.

Many people will know Hanrahan’s late monochromatic prints, the linocuts in black ink, but there is also a world of colour to see in her work. Her creative practice was diverse. Some will know her as an artist, others as a writer, having produced 15 books. 

Billed as a survey, it is disappointing there were none of Hanrahan’s sketch books on display. These provide a wonderful visual commentary on her early life and are an insight into the observational skills she took with her as a writer. Hanrahan returned to these sketch books as source material for many of her well-known later prints.

Hanrahan was born in Adelaide in 1939. Her father died the following year, and she was brought up by her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt. She attended the South Australian School of Art and later continued her studies in London. Her first exhibition was at the Contemporary Art Society gallery in Adelaide in 1964. Hanrahan died in Adelaide in 1991, at the age of 52.

This exhibition of 180 works is hung salon-style which means some of the works are placed too high and others too low to be fully considered. This is always difficult to adjudicate, because without it we inevitably see less work in the gallery space. More white space would allow the work to breathe and be more fully appreciated. However, any criticisms such as this are quickly diminished by experiencing the work. Hanrahan’s full body of visual artworks is thought to exceed four hundred items.

The works can be seen as a joyous celebration of life or interpreted as something darker, and it is this quality of light and dark that make them especially interesting. Works with titles like Rooster Girl and Tiger Lady are simply delightfully amusing; others, such as Birth, are darker and more confronting.

Read: Book review: She is Haunted, Paige Clark, Allen & Unwin

Flinders University own 30 of the works exhibited; the remainder have been sourced from museums and private collections including Hanrahan’s long-time partner, sculptor, Jo Steele. Hanrahan is well represented in many museum collections so if you are not in Adelaide and want to see a work in person, it is worth making an enquiry at the print room of your nearest museum. 

It is easy to think that graphic works like these can be seen just as well on a computer screen, but you might be surprised by the nuances that can be experienced by seeing the work in person. The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue with essays by curator Nic Brown, Dr Jacqueline Millner of La Trobe University, and Elspeth Pitt from the NGA.

Whether you are interested in writing, film making or the visual arts, Hanrahan’s work will offer you something to take away. Allow yourself the time to absorb these works and you will leave this exhibition enriched.  

Bee-stung lips : Barbara Hanrahan works on paper 1960-1991

Flinders University Museum of Art, Adelaide (FUMA)
Opens to 1 October 2021

Stephen Richardson is a visual artist based in Adelaide. He has a poly-hyphenate art practice and has exhibited locally and internationally. Stephen is the Honorary Ambassador in Australia for the European Academy of Sciences, Arts, & Letters (EASAL) and is currently completing a PhD in visual art with La Trobe University.