Every Irish person of a certain generation has held his designs in their hands, while audiences in their millions sat agape as Irish Dancing took over the world with his designs as the backdrop. Robert Ballagh’s graphic design and fine art has shaped a 20th century interpretation of Ireland. His unassuming studio on Dublin’s Northside is a stone’s throw from our office so we dropped in to talk to the distinguished artist.
Looking back at the Ireland of the mid 1960’s, still a relatively new country of course, was there an embracing of the global cultural movements of the time or was the official position still that of the Celtic Revival movement, so strong in the pre-Independent Ireland of British rule?
For the visual arts world, the really significant event was the ROSC exhibition in 1967, which was mind-blowing, even if you weren’t involved in the arts. They took the big hall in the RDS and they hung the work of 50 of the leading artists in the world – there were no Irish artists in it by the way which was a big of a slur on us – but from Roy Lichtenstein and the pop artists to Picasso to all the, I mean if you look at the catalogue now, it’s amazing that all of those modern artists were showing in Dublin in 1967. It was a modernist international influence that we very much bought into as young artists. It wasn’t a rejection of the kind of romantic, Celtic kind of thing you’re talking about. It was this acceptance of this terribly exciting international kind of art.
What was the agenda of that show?
The idea was very much one of feeling that Ireland was very backward in terms of the visual arts. I think that that was an incorrect view by the organisers, people like Michael Scott the architect and Dorothy Walker the critic and these people very much felt that artists like Sean Keating who would have been very academic, should not represent “Modern Ireland”. They just had no time for that and I think they made a mistake in that Keating, and it’s an interesting debate now, even though his work formally was quite conservative, his content was very radical. So I think they saw things very much in black and white terms. You were either a modernist or you were a heretic. We were young and all of this seemed so exciting. We wanted to get on that train, you know? All sort of things changed, a brand new Arts Council came in in ‘73, which was much better funded and had a much broader remit.
And from an institutional point of view, government commissions for instance, was this Modernist agenda prevalent?
What happened from the sixties on was because of an enormous amount of cultural spadework being done by certain people, Modernism for want of a better term became the official art and people who didn’t do Modernism were left behind. So from that day on, the notion of, for instance, sending an academic painter to represent Ireland at a biennale was never going to happen. It was all about “The Sixties” and The Lemas / Whitaker programme, we’re outward looking, joining Europe, all very progressive. I was a bit different in that I was always a figurative painter but the bulk of the work that was being promoted as part of this development was mostly abstract. And if it wasn’t abstract it wasn’t very figurative or realistic.
How did you navigate that world when realism and tradition seemed to be at the core of what you did?
It’s a fair point to say I was making work that didn’t quite fit in. I mean the kind of breakthrough stuff I did was a series which I did over a good few years which was very much influenced by this challenge and I suppose it was a bit of an intellectual cheat in that it was a series of paintings of people looking at modern paintings and I thought it was a bit ironic but the art establishment just thought that it was irony free and that it was celebrating contemporary modern art.
So they embraced it?
Oh yeah, it became very popular, not just in Ireland. I think in the mid seventies I had 13 shows in Europe, it was really very successful. I don’t think most people realised what I was trying to say when I painted someone looking at, doesn’t matter who, I actually did a load of people looking at Jackson Pollock. That it was questioning the role of contemporary art in Irish society. Brian O’Doherty wrote a really interesting book called Inside the White Cube which is all about the presentation of art, because people forget now all galleries tend to be white. This is an environment that has been created for the display of modernist art. So I was interested in looking at all of that. It just happened that the kind of critique that I was engaging in didn’t seem to bother the people who actually liked the work on a surface level. Interestingly enough I remember, there was a chap who was an expert, he wrote the definitive biography of Jackson Pollock. He was in Trinity College giving a lecture one night and the picture I did of people looking at a Jackson Pollock was in the Trinity collection. Now I didn’t know anything about this lecture but somebody obviously pointed me out to him and he came over and he said I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of Pollock forgeries in my life but he said your painting is the best one I’ve ever seen. So I said thank you.
A lightbulb didn’t go off in your head then? A new career perhaps?
A new career in forgery, yeah, ha ha. I mean that series was very successful. I had a show in a very prestigious gallery in Brussels and it sold out and the guy said to me we’ll have another show in a year or so, same stuff, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do exactly the same stuff. It was the same theme, it was still people looking at pictures but I’d changed it a bit and I remember when I brought the pictures he was absolutely furious. He said I wanted them exactly the same and I said I can’t keep doing the same things and to a certain extent he was right because – as it only sold half or three quarters rather than all of them. But I couldn’t keep painting people looking at paintings and also I found I was getting kind of silly about it. People would come up and say bet you couldn’t do Francis Bacon and I said we’d see about that. But then suddenly I felt this is not what artists are supposed to be about.
This feeling of not being content with repeating yourself creatively, keeping your own interest fresh, was that why you started to explore designing for the theatre?
The first theatre design I did was in ’85. Michael Colgan from the Gate Theatre contacted me and said he’d like to invite me to design a Samuel Beckett show that he was doing, a one-person show with Barry McGovern. Michael was working in the Dublin Theatre Festival and I had done a poster for the Dublin theatre festival in 1980 or maybe 1979. I had also done the letterhead as a graphic designer for The Gate before he asked me to actually design a play. And I discovered, not that I’d be good at it necessarily, but I discovered I had the basic skills for it, because if you’re designing for a theatre you have to do drawings that people can build from. I didn’t realise that I had a particular vision or a particular way of doing it until I did the first one which still it’s amazing, what is it, ’85, 35 years… it’s a long time ago, that show still goes out with my set.
And did you talk to any professional set designers before you started?
No, not at all. I was lucky in that first project was quite collaborative, which is a bit unusual in the theatre. Barry McGovern (the actor) was going to do a one person show that Jackie MacGowran had done called From Beginning to End which is basically just excerpts from Beckett’s writing but when Colgan approached Beckett about permission to do this Beckett said he’d promised Gloria MacGowran, Jackie MacGowran’s widow, the rights to do this. I don’t think she ever did it actually but the great man said no, but he asked Colgan had he thought of the novels, which Michael hadn’t. So suddenly we were all given copies of, I mean why they gave it to me as a designer, I don’t know, but Barry, Rupert Murray who was the lighting designer, Gerry Dukes who was Barry’s collaborator and Colm O’Brinn who was the director, we were all given copies of the novels and told to read them and come back with ideas. So the show I’ll Go On, which I think is a great show and has been very successful for many years is a dramatisation of the three novels of Samuel Beckett. But I remember saying to myself Jesus, if you’ve to do this much work in the theatre, reading, making suggestions about adaptations and everything, too much hard work, but I discovered it’s not like that normally. I mean Beckett had written the novels but there was no dramatisation. I think the next show I did, was it The Importance of Being Ernest, the play’s written, it’s set, I didn’t have to read it unless I wanted to read it.
Have you a set process you follow designing for Theatre?
Well, I mean, as a designer you usually work quite closely with the director. So the director has a vision of what he or she wants. I discovered I had no interest in recreating a period set and rummaging through antique shops in Francis Street to get a period table or whatever. If you look at my modest career in the theatre, all my designs are very minimal, very abstract and they’re all, to my mind they’re all about the text and the performance. Their only purpose is to assist the performance and the text, they’re not about people coming out and saying oh did you see that wonderful furniture. I don’t think you can do it as well in the cinema, cinema demands a kind of realism. It’s funny being a realist painter, my approach to the theatre is very non-realist because I reckon you have all the reality in a live performance, you don’t need to be adding anything to that.
Despite your “modest career in the theatre” your designs are probably the most seen and high profile of any sets in Irish theatre history.
For the last 22 years it’s been very exciting to be a part of such a significant project as Riverdance. And has been a great honour to work with some extraordinarily talented people, all over the world. You know, if somebody had told me that I’d be designing a show for Radio City music hall in New York I would have said you must be mad.
It must be a massive undertaking, do you have to adapt your designs for each venue?
None of us I think believed it was going to become the success it became so we didn’t design a kind of generic set or anything. So for the first, well half a year or year, every venue had its own set which was a kind of very expensive way of doing this.
The Celtic Tiger way of doing it...
Ha, yes exactly, we were all taken by surprise at the success and weren’t prepared for the demand. But then obviously the producers said let’s try and design something modular. Some changes were driven by technology because in the beginning Moya Doherty, the producer, very much had the idea of using projections and in those days projection technology was very primitive, it was analogue, huge big fucking projectors the size of a car. And cumbersome, susceptible to breakdowns, the amount of times you’d have panic stations where the thing would jam. And then digital projection started to develop. We tried it a few times and weren’t happy but then it became powerful enough to project. I had originally created all these images, based on paintings that I did so they were still images, but then when we moved to digital photography or digital projection, we initially projected just the still images but then it dawned on us that this is now digital, we can animate them. Now the animation is very modest but I think it’s quite nice and subtle.
Following on from Riverdance, a successful export that engaged with huge audiences around the world, can we talk about another high profile project, one that literally was in the hand of every Irish person. You were the designer of the last series of Irish banknotes. How did that come about? Was it a public tender or invitation? Can you describe the process?
The Central Bank invited, I’m guessing 15, maybe 20 artists and designers to submit designs for a new £20 note, which would feature Daniel O’Connell, and I was one of the people asked. I always remember I couldn’t get a fucking idea into my head and when I got the commission there seemed plenty of time and I’d go at it every now and again but I had no ideas or if I had ideas they were boring. And then suddenly the deadline was two weeks away and I said ah, shit, I’m going to have to write to these people and say sorry. Then I found this old engraving of Daniel O’Connell, which seemed to be a bit different from all the other images I’d seen of him and I developed something out of that. I did it all on photocopying machines, colour-photocopying machines which then were the latest technology and it pasted together. Talk about cut and paste. And I have to say I thought my designs were pretty rough and ready looking. But I banged them in and much to my surprise I got a call to come in to the Central Bank on Dame Street to be told I’d won the competition. And what was nice about it was that the competition was judged anonymously. Nobody could say I’d pulled strings or anything. They had judged all the entries anonymously.
Did you ever get a chance to see the other entries?
And did you feel from looking at them that yours was the right choice?
I thought there were some other good ones.
Were they ever published?
No, they never published the others.
I mean the initial commission was just to do a £20 note but I got on really well with them because you know they print them here but also they don’t have plate making facilities or anything here so it was a real adventure. I think there’s about five companies in the world that produce banknotes. I know the Bank of England would be one and there’s a Japanese one as well as a company called Giesecke & Devrient in Munich. They got sample banknotes from all of these people and then they asked me to look at them. We all concurred that the ones from Giesecke and Devrient we liked a lot so they decided to go with them. A banknote has a lot of different printing technologies used. And to me the most important is what they call intaglio or engraving because that’s the really fine detailed part that you can actually feel the depth of the ink on it.
And when you presented your work, the final work, what format was it in?
Well, I’ll explain, what was interesting was the meeting in Munich with the people from the banknote manufacturing company, who were German obviously, and we were Irish and I don’t think either of us – well no, they were not bad in English, we were fucking useless in German, so everything was being translated. So at one stage, because I had admired the portraits on the notes that they had shown us, I asked who actually does these portraits. There was a lot of huffing and puffing and then they said his name is Antonio Lopez, so I asked was he there? I was told he was. I asked could I meet him and there was more huffing and puffing about whether we should meet him or not. He was eventually produced. He was a senior artist, designer, engraver and I was asking him how did he do it and then the interesting thing was there was lots of translations going on and it was all terribly slow and I just looked at him and I said “hablas español?” he replied “Sí” while the rest of them were looking at us.
His work is so specialised, they must wrap him up in cotton wool. Very interesting though, did you get to know him well?
Yes, I developed a really good relationship with this guy. He told me that because his work is so specialised – I think there’s only about six people in the world that can do this kind of work, he was told that like if he didn’t feel well, don’t bother coming in because you can’t correct mistakes.
Initially I had to do a small portrait of the subject, which would go to the board of the Central Bank of Ireland for them to approve. Then I had to do a drawing of the painting to send to Lopez who would do a drawing of my drawing to show what he was going to. Once all this was approved, he would start working. Incredibly he did it 100% to scale as it would be printed and it took him about six months to do a portrait. After a couple of months’ work he would take a pull of his engraving and send it to me. I might say could you do the eye a little more like this or the hair or whatever, but the only way I could do that, I couldn’t work that small, I would get a blow up of it done and I would draw on the blow up and send it back to him and he would reduce it down again. So it was a very interesting experience.
What about the other stages?
Well I had to design the watermark but that is done in the paper manufacturing stage and that was in Switzerland, a lovely little village called Louisenthal. So basically you make paper, it’s cotton-rag paper and this pulpy stuff is laid on a mesh cylinder. The mesh is pushed in relief so when this stuff is spread over it, obviously the higher points the paper is thinner and that’s how a watermark is made. I didn’t know that. But then it also has special security inks, they were made in a factory near Lausanne in Switzerland so I went there too. The serial numbers were done with a letterpress. Nowadays you would have silkscreen printing to do the optical variable ink, which is ink that changes colour depending on the angle you look at it. You have intaglio or engraving, another printing process and then you have wet litho and dry litho so there’s at least five or six printing techniques on one little piece of paper. So for me it was a very interesting experience in that by the time I got to the end of the series I was a kind of expert banknote designer with a skill that I’ll probably never use again. Because Ireland certainly, unless we leave the euro, we’re never going to produce another banknote.
Interview by Bren Byrne
Portrait and studio photos by Lauren Pritchard