This Day in Jewish History

1908: An Artist Noticed as She Neared 100 Is Born

As she retired to an old-age home, Hannah Frank sought homes for her works, which won her belated but heartfelt acclaim.

Hannah Frank Organization

August 23, 1908, was the birthdate of Hannah Frank, the Glasgow artist and sculptor who only began to receive the recognition due her toward the end of her life, as she approached the age of 100.

Hannah Frank was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to Charles and Miriam Lipetz Frank, both of whom had emigrated from Russia earlier in the century. Charles was a master mechanic who owned a shop in Glasgow for the sale and repair of cameras and scientific equipment. Hannah was one of four children, the other three of whom were boys.

Showing artistic talent from a young age, she attended both Glasgow University and, in the evenings, the Glasgow School of Art.

At first Frank produced mainly drawings and engravings, and her work appeared regularly in the Glasgow University Magazine. She signed her works, black-and-white images in the Art Nouveau style, with the name “Al Aaraaf,” which was what Edgar Allan Poe had called a long and mysterious poem he wrote as a young man and first published in 1929.

The name “Al Aaraaf” came from the Koran, and refers to a purgatory-like place between heaven and hell, but later was given to a celestial body, eventually identified as a supernova, discovered by the Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe in 1572. The star had appeared suddenly in the sky, burned brightly but briefly, and then disappeared from sight.

Wikimedia Commons

Frank’s clean and stylized drawings are reminiscent of works by Aubrey Beardsley and Jessie King or the American Rockwell Kent – and even Edward Gorey. Her women have long, straight hair and almond eyes, and the mood ranges from sinister to mystical to romantic. Many of her subjects are drawn from the Bible or from poetry.

In 1927, one of her drawings won first prize in a competition sponsored by the (London) Jewish Chronicle. She also produced illustrations for the Glasgow branches of the Zionist youth movement Habonim and the local branch of the Friends of the Hebrew University.

In 1939, Hannah Frank married Lionel Levy, a mathematics and science teacher; the two were together until his death, in 2003. She began studying sculpture, at the Glasgow School of Art, in order to improve her ability to depict the human body, but beginning in the 1950s, she worked only in that medium, producing small human figures of bronze, terracotta and plaster.

Hannah Frank Organization

Works by Frank were exhibited over the years at the Royal Glasgow Institute and at a number of other prestigious Scottish venues. Reviewing a show of her work at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1965, the critic Sydney Goodsir Smith praised her “voluptuous ‘Reclining Woman’ [which] is classical in her ease of pose and perfect calm, a lovely wee thing." After an exhibition at her brother’s home, in 1969, there was a demand for many of her prints, too, but in general, she did not attain the name recognition of many other artists of her caliber.

The world should know

It was in 2002, as Hannah Frank approached her centenary, that her niece Fiona Frank (Hannah and Lionel never had any children), decided that more of the world needed to know about the artist.

“I grew up with my aunt's art in our house," she told the Jewish Chronicle in 2008.  "We used to visit Auntie Hannah and Uncle Lionel in Glasgow, though we couldn't stay as the spare room was her studio. The house was full, full, full of sculptures and drawings. Hannah would always have an overall on and clay on her hands and it was Lionel who always had to make the tea."

When her aunt and uncle were readying to move into a seniors’ residence, they asked her to help place some Hannah’s sculptures among friends and relatives. She took some of it to Lancaster University, where she is today a development officer, and where Hannah’s art received a warm reception.

What ensued were an exhibition at Glasgow University and a reception at the Scottish Parliament, in Edinburgh. Later, Fiona arranged for her aunt’s work to travel to the United States, where there were shows at Brandeis University and in New York and Philadelphia. A book and a film were also produced about Hannah Frank, and Fiona set up a website (http://www.hannahfrank.org.uk/pages/index.htm) - where visitors can order copies of prints and learn more about her life and career.

Hannah Frank died on December 18, 2008, four months after she turned 100, and just a day after Glasgow University sent her a letter informing her of its desire to present her with an honorary doctorate.