Die Bruecke

In Conversation With Franz YangMocnik

Die Bruecke: Your portraits have frequently been the topic of conversation lately. When I think of your paintings, I see people sitting in cafés, reflecting, fixed in an altered state – in their ordinariness but simultaneously emerging from their ordinariness. What is a portrait for you?

Franz Yang-Močnik: Portraiture is an exceptional case within the unbounded possibilities of painting because it is in the conservative sense always bound to physical reality, in order to reach a true image of the Human. Here the question, what is a good portrait, has a wide field of possible answers, as does the question, what is a true image. One shall not so readily say. Some days ago I received from ORF Steiermark (Austrian Broadcasting, Styrian division) an invitation to an exhibition with the title “Facing Nations – culture of humanity: welt.kultur.projekt”, presenting the monumental work of artist Oskar Stocker: 124 people, 124 portraits, 124 nations – one picture. The whole project is dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Facing Nations” being a unique artistic and socially relevant initiative in the sense of the guiding principles for the Anniversary. Human dignity and justice for us all is the idea of the project, depicting every human in his/her uniqueness, irrespective of skin color, gender, religion, wealth, political or other type of belief.

You’ll excuse me, I must mention, as I fear I’ve lost face—more so, since I remember I’m looking for the perfect face: I do not trust mirrors, that are held up to me because I always see the one holding it. I’m digressing a little. To return to your question about my café pictures, I want to say to that, that for me these series of motifs had their origin in my formerly frequent visits to Vienna, because for me – when I would come through Südbahnhof1, taking a seat in such a typical Viennese café interior, the power of the furnishings and its history imposed itself on me. The people who sit on bentwood chairs seem almost like they were extras in a historic film.

Robert Musil had suggested in the 20s to ban the term “intuition” from the language for a few years because it frequently expresses something vaguely spiritual and is often abused. How do you feel about such an assessment of the intuitive, the spiritual in art?

For the portrait subjects the intuition is, when they are confronted during a break with the state of the canvas, that they say to themselves ‘either I cancel my order, go see a photographer or go see a surgeon’. In the same situation I would not feel any different. Only that for me this disillusionment is part of and motivation for my work. About a privileged status of special receptivity I can speak only with some reservation, and then resulting only from focused work. My wife often takes pictures when we are together with her family or friends in Taiwan and stores those pictures in photo albums. Once I was looking for the model certificate for our car and penetrated into the area of her personal files. In the process I tossed a thick photo album jamming a drawer and started looking at the pictures in it. At first briefly leafing, then, with burgeoning curiosity in me, peered with sneering pity at what appeared to be a female person, eventually realizing when I put on my glasses that it was me I was looking at in the photo. Me on the beach, my shapely but thin legs inspiring me to look in the first place. The round belly could also indicate a pregnancy. But then, in the shadow of my broad-brimmed straw hat I recognized my face! When I think of how my face looks from the outside, I have, I fear, an idea of it that dates back ten years, and so it is with most people for the reason, I believe, that the vanity of an artist is no different from other people’s.

When going to Graz I often take a chair in the Café Promenade between Stadtpark and Burgtor. There is a painting of yours, a large-scale portrait of a woman. What is your opinion on art in public space? Is it able to accomplish something, does it animate, teach, or reform?

The story with the Café Promenade picture is a short one. When having an exhibition in my atelier the wife of the renowned tax consultant Dr. jur. Kleiner, who is also the owner of the café, instantly fell for this painting with the young blonde. A couple of days later Dr. Kleiner called me to say he wanted to buy the picture and I named my price. Thereupon began a short negotiation. Crafty as he is, he reminded me where I stood in the rankings. I had to give in and asked how much I should pay so he’d take it. With his generosity we finally agreed and I added that I would only accept on the condition it would be hung in the Promenade. For the compensation of my pride. – Yeah, there is a subdued response but despite the very good presentation of the painting no interested parties have come to me in the four years since.

Is it sobering for you when after several years there is no one budging? After all, Graz is an art capital, or at least will be, and Café Promenade is an oasis for tourists and those interested in culture in the summer. From the Literaturhaus in the Elisabethstraße is a short distance. Up to gallery Lendl, the main gallery in Graz in Bürgergasse, it is only two minutes. In other words, how do you judge people’s attention?

The range of our desires, which we see before our eyes in constantly new configurations like a kaleidoscope, is a phenomenon of the media society in which the communication adventure provides the stronger incentives for most people. The visual art in public space is not of great importance to them. The art amateur or expert comes to a city by plane because of his profession, and finishes his job as a curator, lecturer or listener—if you like, on the extended concept of art, which includes all kinds of achievements in the art of engineering, and thus the art of public space. He once again gets – e.g. in Graz-Thalerhof2 – on board a plane, flies over a spectacular panorama of the Alps… As a matter of routine he closes the window shade, and the coffee he’s served becomes more important.