(This interview first appeared in Arts West (Ireland) issue 71, published July 2000)
CHARTING THE HUMAN CONDITION
British-born artist Franck Moore has spent a lifetime making art. In the run-up to a retrospective exhibition of his paintings and carvings at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, Co. Mayo in July 2000 he spoke to Ian Wieczorek about his work.
How did you start in art? Was it something that you felt was an inevitability in your life?
FRANCK MOORE: Well, it’s rather a strange story, really. My father was in education, he taught French, German and Spanish. At that time, in the 1920’s and 30’s, things were difficult and he was a bit Victorian in his outlook. Unfortunately when I got a scholarship to the Grammar School it was a school in which he was teaching, which put me off right away. Partly because of that I didn’t do very well at school. I had always been interested in art - I did a lot of drawing and whatever when I was young - and my father said that the only condition under which he would support me in being trained as an artist was if I was trained as a teacher, which I didn’t want to do, but it gave me the opportunity to go to art school, art college and all that. Unfortunately I was also lumbered with this business of getting into teaching. (Laughs.) It wasn’t something I had a vocation for, although I did the best I could, obviously. When I was about 30 I got married - I wanted to have children - which meant that I had to hang onto teaching for much longer than I had expected in order to maintain a basic income to bring up the children. So it was when the children were all settled into good careers that I seriously started developing my work.
So it would have been around the 1950s when you really began to make the work he wanted to make?
Yes, that’s right.
The themes that run through your work presumably had been developing from early on, and looking at this exhibition they have never left you.
I keep coming back to the same themes, yes.
How would you describe those themes: the human condition, observations on humanity…?
That’s the gist of it. I’m interested in the reaction of people to circumstances and to each other. That’s my main interest. I suppose somebody like Daumier might be cited.
Daumier was well known for putting a particular slant on things: he was prepared to show the most unpleasant aspects of humanity and to emphasise those aspects, whereas your work seems very much more positive and hopeful…
… much more sympathetic; yes, that is true.
Your style has varied over the years, but it has not necessarily developed as a direct progression: different styles and approaches tend to appear and reappear in your work. Where did those different styles come from, how did you develop them?
Frankly, for each piece of work I do I really start from scratch. I start with a clean slate every time and sometimes it works out in quite a new, different way, sometimes it’s a similar approach to what I’ve done before.
So you’re really inventing or rediscovering an approach every time you begin a new piece?
I think so. That’s what I try to do.
That must keep things very fresh. You’re never likely to fall into a formula.
Yes, I’ve tried not to do that.
There is a strong element of graphic design in your work. Where did that come from?
That I couldn’t tell you, but I am much more interested in the linear structures than the actual colour - that might seem strange as a painter, but colour to me is something which comes afterwards. I find in many cases colour is pretty arbitrary really, I put out a series of colours on the palette and work within that range.
And is there any point in your own education at which those ideas of graphic design were particularly instilled?
No, I don’t think so.
That whole area of graphic design has a fairly strong tradition in Britain.
Yes, there is a British tradition. There is a strong English tradition of cartoon drawing which has existed for some hundreds of years: take Hogarth, for instance; and the Elizabethan miniaturists were highly linear in their approach too, so it’s been around for a long time.
Are there any particular artists who you might pick out as impressing or inspiring you yourself?
I’m pretty aware of what’s going on in the art world. I’ve been interested in, though I wouldn’t say influenced by, the German Expressionists, who were primarily interested in people and what they were doing at the time in Germany. Also Ben Shahn, who worked with Diego Rivera. Fauvism also interests me, simply because of the way the Fauvists applied colour, by having a lot of arm movement in the application of colour. I’m also interested in the work of Chagall, the way he uses people. The work than I consider the highest I’ve ever seen is the Isenheim altar piece by Grünewald, which I think is really tremendous, the way the individuals in it relate to each other and the strength of feeling that is put into it.
In terms of topics that you choose, do you see anything of what to do as documenting the spirit of the time?
Sometimes, if the subject is strong enough. For instance for the last 18 months I’ve been working on the theme of refugees, because that is something very powerful that is going on at the moment. But often I portray subjects like lovers, people sleeping, mother and child, that sort of thing, subjects which are universal.
Protesting is also fairly universal: there is also certain strand in the work of the individual against imposed authority - of protesters and police or army troops…
I’m not so much protesting as having sympathy with those involved. The work doesn’t preach, but it does convey the reality of a situation. I’m not so much angry as sympathetic.
There are also a number of carvings included in the exhibition: the approach at one level would seem to be similar to your two-dimensional work in that it’s very linear, but I would say that the work is more celebratory.
The carvings are a minor part of my work, really. They are based in the main on the human figure, although I’ve also made studies of plant structures, which I find quite interesting. In my painting I’ve also done series of plants, I did a big series on leaf structures developing the idea of light penetration and the way a very simple leaf form becomes highly complicated when one overlaps the other.
Your work is very much non-elitist, and I get the sense that this is a very important aspect of what you do. Would you agree with that?
Yes I would.
It’s not academically pulling itself away from universal accessibility.
I try to stand my own ground. I’m quite aware of contemporary artistic trends, the latest work, I know what’s going on, but I keep a firm hand on myself and just do what I want to do.
Art at the cutting edge has changed dramatically over the past century. You would have witnessed huge changes in the approach to art. How do you view such changes?
I have tried not to be what you might call trendy, which produces in many cases a lot of dishonest work, work which is fashionable and may or may not be of any value. I think that a lot of artists have fallen into that, largely because it means the possibility of marketing, and marketing is one of the things which is really damaging creative work at the moment.
The whole nature of visual art has broadened hugely into many new areas, partly due to technology and partly due to what is basically accepted as visual art. How do you see the status of the "old-fashioned" media such as painting in terms of its validity within this maelstrom of new forms and fashions?
There is a lot of interesting work being done, I must say, and a lot of technical possibilities are being exploited. But when it comes down to it, there is nothing so direct as a person using their own mind with a surface in front of them, putting down what they are feeling or thinking at that time. That can’t be done through any of these technical means, which makes a great difference. I’m sure that the current view of painting as something of the past can’t remain for very long. Painting is the most personal form of expression, and after all it’s the quirkiness of individual which is the driving force in art. The idiosyncrasies are the only things which are important really.