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Art's grande dame gets to core of life's eternal themes

Sitting with Lys Hansen in her converted smiddy studio, pouring over images on a laptop of work going back over 30 years, she turns to me and says:

LYS HANSEN: A new exhibition of her work will be on display at The Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, from Sunday. Picture: Mark Mainz
LYS HANSEN: A new exhibition of her work will be on display at The Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, from Sunday. Picture: Mark Mainz

"Sorry about all the naked figures. When I'm trying to get to the core then I'm not interested in clothes, shoes and the rest."

An apology from this grande dame of Scottish art is superfluous. The naked, raw power of Hansen's work gives voice to a primordial roar that hijacks your senses and jolts you into territory you might skirt over in day-to-day life. Her themes are universal; love, war and the ties which bind us together as human beings.

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Hansen was born in 1936 and grew up in the Clackmannanshire town of Alloa, where her parents ran a bakery. She has mined her childhood extensively in her art, particularly the war years, when her mother continued to run the bakery business and her father was away working as an artillery sergeant in the Arctic Convoys.

Subsequent extended residencies in Berlin have allowed her to work through the post war fall-out on a psyche imbued with images of conflict at home and abroad.

Love + War + Paint is the title of a new exhibition of Hansen's work at The Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, which opens on Saturday. The title says it all. There's a wee joke stitched into the name, since Hansen is as glamorous a septuagenarian as you are like to meet and is never knowingly seen in public without full make-up and carefully painted nails.

This major survey of her work straddles four decades, from the late 1970s to the present day. It starts roughly at the point when Hansen's two sons were reaching adulthood.

There are over 50 works in this exhibition and they fall into four broad themes: the torso; large canvases on the themes of family, war heredity and identity; Berlin paintings and drawings; as well as new figurative paintings and painted wooden sculptures.

Hansen makes most of her art in her studio in the Perthshire village of Braco, fashioned for her by the three men in her life, husband George Sutherland and sons Giles and Marcus.

Papers, paints, folios and files abound. Wooden painted figures and bubble-wrapped paintings are lined up waiting to be transported to Milngavie. Some of the giant paintings are still sitting naked as the day they were painted, devoid of glass or frames. There are large figures in both wood and on canvas; unmade-up faces staring blankly into space and figures punching their way into the light.

One of Hansen's large diptych paintings, Carry and Care, sparks off for me an odd physical and emotional reaction. A naked female is at the centre of the action, her face contorted into two sides. She is carrying what may or may not be a baby. It looks like a mini-adult Christ Child from a Renaissance painting. Naked figures, faces, hands and feet leer out of the deep blue depths of the canvas. To the side are two ghostly looking foetuses - still with umbilical cords attached. One stares up accusingly at the mother figure. "They are my lost babies," says Hansen.

The painting jolts me back to a time, not so long ago, when I was in the midst of caring for small children who were taking their first tentative steps into the world while my elderly parents were slowly inching their way towards a not-so-gentle good night. It's a period I am probably still processing but my reaction wrong-foots me and leaves me mulling on it for days.

Like the bread, rolls, cream cookies, Paris buns and mince pies her parents once baked for the residents of Alloa, Hansen stirs in all the ingredients she can lay her hands on from her own experience. Her DNA, in the shape of Danish ancestry, has also provided a rich seam for her to mine. Her Danish grandfather, Ludwig Andreas Hansen, fled the Baltic island of Bornholm as a 14-year-old sailor in 1888 and never returned. He settled in Grangemouth, where he raised a family, including her father, Alfred.

Ludwig's granddaughter first visited the island of his birth more than a century later, in 1996.

This experience has been feeding into her own particular brand of North European expressionism ever since.

Hansen studied at Edinburgh College of Art and Edinburgh University in the late 1950s before going on to train as a teacher. She juggled a teaching career with marriage and motherhood, always working at her art when she got the chance. The University of Stirling has a work in its collection, acquired when it was first starting, in 1968, called The Boatmaker's Fishgarden.

Key works from the late 1970s and early 1980s are included in the new exhibition. One depicts the Greek goddess, Athena; a striding Cubist looking creature, with no arms and suspenders on a meaty-looking thigh. Potent, yet painted in pretty pastel shades, she is a contradiction in herself.

The split torso figures heavily from this period; bold, expressive paintings which present woman simultaneously as sex object and mother, cleft in two from behind.

Another powerful torso painting dating back to 1982, is The Rivals - Scarsdale (Mrs Harris 1), on loan from North Ayrshire Council.

Inspired by a story that scandalised New York society at the time, It depicts private school headmistress, Jean S Harris, the scorned middle-aged mistress of an older wealthy doctor, and her much younger rival for his affections. Mrs Harris was jailed for the murder of her rival.

The story became a touchstone for feminists, who argued Mrs Harris' plight shone a light on the fragile position of women dependent on men.

Looking at the painting more than 30 years after she painted it, Hansen says now: "I didn't know what I was doing at the time - analysis comes later. The figures are upright. No one lying down, which has always been a constant in my work.

"As a student, I was influenced by de Kooning's view of women as landscape."

This exhibition of Hansen's work presents an opportunity to see the work of a mature Scottish artist at the peak of her powers. She has always ploughed her own furrow and continues to push herself into uncharted fields. Her latest series - painted wooden sculptures fashioned from chunks of a felled chestnut tree in a field next to her house in the Stirlingshire village of Blairlogie - are the solid embodiment of her painted figures on canvas.

If anyone can find a Beastie in a chunk of wood, it is Lys Hansen. If anyone can discover Madonna in the same grain, it is Lys Hansen.

Lys Hansen: Love + War + Paint is at Lillie Art Gallery, Station Road, Milngavie, July 12 - September 24.

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