'I'm popular with the public yet ignored by the art establishment'
By Rosita Boland
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: ROBERT BALLAGH: Too independent? Too political? Too many faces? Whatever the reason, Robert Ballagh, one of Ireland’s most versatile artists, can still feel like an outsider, writes ROSITA BOLAND
THERE ARE 17 Robert Ballaghs in his studio at Arbour Hill in Dublin, so it’s hard to know which one to look at. The artist is in the process of making 16 self-portraits, half of them in oil, half of them drawings, for a show at Wexford Arts Centre that will open during the opera festival later in the year.
The initial effect of seeing Robert Ballagh looking at his own paintings of himself is like looking at a personalised version of his early paintings, the People Looking At series that initially made his name, in which bystanders in galleries scrutinise work by famous artists. Representations of his face in varied moods – sanguine, watchful, startled, alert, in repose – line the walls. Some still lack his trademark moustache; others have partially missing lips or eyes.
“A portrait can take me up to six months to do,” Ballagh says. “Making self-portraits is about seeking some kind of self-knowledge. There’s a lot of exposure involved.”
Over the time I’m sitting in the sunny studio – seemingly cluttered yet carefully ordered in the precise, specific way that every artist’s studio is – my eyes keep flicking between the many interpretations of Ballagh’s face and the man himself. It’s a fascinating experience, but also slightly unnerving: once or twice, distracted, I find myself addressing a question to a painted face.
Robert Ballagh is one of Ireland’s most visible and vocal visual artists. Even if you have no interest in art, you have almost certainly possessed something designed by him, whether you knew it or not. He has designed more than 70 stamps for An Post and also designed the last pre-euro set of banknotes, which featured James Joyce, Daniel O’Connell, Douglas Hyde and Charles Stewart Parnell. If you are one of the millions who have seen Riverdance , you will have seen images of his work on the sets.
Then there are the distinctive paintings and portraits, including many commissions, that feature his family, writers, politicians and people in the public eye. His best-known portrait is probably the one of Noel Browne in the National Gallery of Ireland. He has also designed theatre sets and helped create the opening ceremonies for both the Special Olympics and the Ryder Cup when they were held in Ireland. Four years ago there was a retrospective of his work at the RHA Gallagher Gallery.
It’s a wide-ranging portfolio of creativity, reflecting Ballagh’s many interests. Does he see a separation between his work as a designer and his work as an artist?
“I just see it all as work as an artist,” he says. “I enjoy doing all sorts of things. A lot of artists have a very ambivalent relationship with commissions; I enjoy doing commissions because they push me in directions I never would have thought of going in by myself.”
Ballagh is three years off 70, a fact he refers to more than once, admitting that it both amazes and disconcerts him. “I don’t think of myself as old,” he says with a sense of marvel.
Many people in 2010 would say 67 isn’t old, and Ballagh, comfortable and relaxed in jeans and a blue shirt, looks particularly full of energy. He has been married to Betty since his 20s, has two children, Rachel and Bruce, and is now a grandfather. In defiance of the usual practice of not putting images of living people on postage stamps, Ballagh managed to get a portrait of Bruce as a child on to his Boys’ Brigade stamp. “I had to pretend I made him up,” he says. All the family feature in several of Ballagh’s larger paintings.
A Dubliner, he grew up in Ballsbridge, a fact he appears oddly defensive about. “You say to people now you grew up in Elgin Road and they presume you were very wealthy, but when I lived there practically all the houses were in flats. I lived in a ground-floor flat.”
The only child of a Presbyterian father, who worked in a wholesale shirt shop, and a Catholic mother, he says: “I don’t think I was spoiled, and I certainly wasn’t lonely.” It was a sport-mad household. Both his parents had played sport for Ireland: cricket and tennis in the case of his father, Robert; hockey in the case of his mother, Nancy. Growing up, Ballagh himself had an ambition to be a professional sportsman, but his short-sightedness and slight build worked against him.
He took on the religion of neither of his parents. “I became a card-carrying atheist when I was in school,” he says. “I’ve made a will which involves me leaving my body to science, and there will be no religious ceremonies whatsoever on my demise.”
His father’s influence was key. “He would tend to take the opposite view of the main view on any issue. As I got older we used to go on walks together and discuss things, and I suppose an awful lot of that rubbed off on me. He, being a Presbyterian, had this notion of the individual conscience; that you acted according to your conscience and not according to the dictates of the church or anyone else. He was always a quiet contrarian, which I suppose rubbed off on me – although I’m probably not so quiet as he was,” Ballagh says, with knowing irony.
Dubliner as he is, Ballagh’s voice has that peculiarly American quality by way of Australia; that tendency for the pitch to go up at the end of a sentence, creating a question where none is intended. It’s a tonal habit that people sometimes unselfconsciously pick up when they spend a lot of time in the company of the younger generation, something Ballagh does in his frequent collaborations on various design projects.
Explaining his introduction to art, for example, he talks about his father being a member of the RDS Library, from which both father and son borrowed books: “I discovered I liked books with pictures in them, and the books that had the most pictures in them were art books? So even before I was 10 I had a rudimentary knowledge of art history, just from getting books out from the library and looking at the pictures and reading the text?”
He attended Blackrock College and then went to Bolton Street College to study architecture. “I was terribly lucky in that my tutor was Robin Walker , who had just come back from studying with Mies van der Rohe,” Ballagh says. “He was so enthusiastic about modernist architecture, and he conveyed this to all his students. I’ve always been convinced that a passionate tutor is the luckiest thing you can have as a student. My attitudes to design and problem-solving come from my few years in Bolton Street.”
In his third year Ballagh had ongoing rows with new and different tutors. By then he had also seen the 1956 film Rock Around the Clock 13 times, which prompted him to join a band called The Chessmen. “There was a key exam in my third year in Bolton Street, and the night before I was playing in Derry,” he says. “The van dropped me off outside Bolton Street and I went in to do the exam – and proceeded to fall asleep. So that more or less finished me off at Bolton Street. And as it happened the band that I was playing with decided to go professional, managed by Noel Pearson, so I changed from being a student to being a professional musician overnight.”
He gigged around the country for some years, gradually tiring of the relentless touring schedule of the showband. One night in Toner’s, on Merrion Row, he was introduced to the artist Michael Farrell, who was looking for an apprentice for a large mural commission for a bank. “He said: ‘The pay is Ł5 a week and all the drink you can take.’ So that sounded interesting to me.”
They worked on the canvases in Ardmore Studios, the only place Farrell could find that was big enough for the large-scale work. “It was a really valuable experience,” Ballagh says. “I learned a lot of skills and a lot about being an artist just by being with an artist. The other interesting thing is that they were making movies at Ardmore at the time, and in fulfilling his contract about the drink we spent a lot of time in the bar in Ardmore with people like Peter O’Toole and Donal McCann. I think it was really after that that I thought I’ll give this art thing a go.”
Ever since then Ballagh has been making art in some form or other. Some of it is controversial. One of his pieces, an installation called Bloody Sunday , which was displayed for just one day in 1972, and incorporated animal blood, provoked a fierce reaction. There were complaints, and it was removed.
“I’m not sure why,” he says hesitantly, no ready answer for the first time in the interview. “I think a lot of people in the South said, ‘No, we don’t want to be part of all that’ . . . I think when it went up, all of that gut sympathy for victims on the street had dissipated somewhat.”
It’s a strange and shaming thing to hear in the week the Saville report is published.
Ballagh is always careful to stress in interviews that he is not, and has never been, a member of any political party. But having campaigned publicly, for example, for the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, does he consider himself political? “I prefer the word ‘activist’ to ‘political’, because people have strange views of what being political means,” he says drily. “We’re all political.”
What does he understand as the difference between the two words? “ ‘Political’ carries a kind of thing that you’ve an agenda, or you’re somehow or other advocating a very specific narrow perspective on something,” he says. “Being an activist, I think, is what we all should be as citizens; concerned about wrongs in our society and trying to play a role in righting those wrongs. I think every citizen has that responsibility. As far as the arts are concerned I’ve always been worried that artists are not treated fairly in this society. I’ve always believed you can really only effect reform, or effect change, if you combine forces and if you form some sort of an organisation that can effectively lobby.”
Ballagh has successfully campaigned for the royalty resale rights for artists, known as droit de suite , although he points out that the Irish threshold for royalty payments is €3,000, compared with €2,000 in Britain. “This cuts out a lot of younger artists,” he says. “But in my opinion we have a very unsympathetic government to the plight of the arts. We’ve always had. I believe that our politicians never have had an interest in the arts beyond photo opportunities. And then you have to listen to guff about the arts being a central part of our recovery programme, while at the same time this government is imposing draconian cutbacks on the arts in every sector. They just don’t care.”
Unusually for an artist, Ballagh has not been formally represented by a gallery since 1983, when David Hendriks died. Why? “At the time, several of the galleries approached me. Foolishly or selfishly, I thought, well, I had no problem selling my work, and I thought, why should I give 50 per cent to someone to sell something I’m able to sell myself? What I didn’t realise is that the whole art world functions through the private art gallery/museum/critic nexus. Even though I continued to successfully sell my work, the result of that very pragmatic decision is that I became a kind of outsider in the Irish arts scene, which was a kind of bizarre situation to find yourself in – but that’s what I’ve become.” He laughs shortly. “You need somewhere to show your work. You need a venue to show your work. You need someone like authors have, like an agent, to promote your work.”
Ballagh has an occasional habit of stretching his legs out fully, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands on top of his head. He puts his hands on top of his head now. It’s the automatic gesture people make sometimes when they’re caught out in the rain and they want to shelter themselves.
Would he describe himself as very independent? “Not deliberately, but I’ve kind of ended up like that,” he says. “I think becoming a kind of a bit of an outsider, in terms of not having a well-known gallery, has impacted. I think my work might be part of it, and also, using that terrible phrase, ‘the politics’ might be part of it. But the end result of it is that I have found myself in a very strange position – I know, because people contact me all the time, etc – that I’m very popular with a wide range of the Irish public and yet I’m almost totally ignored by the Irish art establishment.
“It’s too complicated to understand why. But I think a lot of those reasons that I mentioned are the reasons why. The last time I was selected to represent Ireland in any of these biennials or anything like that was in 1969. That’s a good few years ago. The Irish Museum of Modern Art, which is supposed to be the most important institution in the country, has never bought a picture from me. The Hugh Lane gallery, which is an important gallery in Dublin, the last time it bought a picture from me was in 1977.”
His hands are still firmly on top of his head. Does this perceived slighting by the establishment offend him? “No, not all,” he responds swiftly. But the answer comes too quickly, and is too short, to be entirely convincing. “It upsets me, because I continually have people coming from abroad and saying to me: ‘Where can we see your work?’ And it’s very difficult to know where to direct them. So it’s less my loss than there’s a decided lack of accessibility to my work, and that upsets me.”
Ballagh says he works seven days a week. He is in his studio at 8.30am each day and doesn’t leave until 5.30pm. “It’s less at the weekend,” he says. “But I’m still thinking about art all the time. To me, making art is about problem-solving. Even when I go to bed I suddenly think, that’s how I should do that bit.”
Then he takes his hands down from his head and looks around at the 16 Robert Ballaghs, frowning critically at the many expressions of his own face.
Blackrock College, Dublin. Dropped out of an architectural degree at Bolton Street College after three years to play music professionally with the Chessmen showband.
Worked with the painter Michael Farrell on a series of murals, an experience that made him decide to try a career as an artist. Made his name initially with the People Looking At series of artworks. Well known for his portraits of people in the public eye, family portraits and self-portraits. Retrospective at the RHA Gallagher Gallery in 2006. Designed more than 70 stamps for An Post, the last pre-euro set of banknotes and the set for Riverdance . Helped create the opening ceremonies for both the Special Olympics and the Ryder Cup when they were held in Ireland. Member of Aosdána.
Two grown-up children, Rachel and Bruce, with his wife, Betty Carabini.