Cover story
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

Frederick Franck at 95: the artist as icon-maker

Warwick, N.Y.

At age 95, artist Frederick Franck has come to see his work in a new light: “I think I’ve been making icons all my life and didn’t know it,” he recently told me over the phone.

The revelation seemed problematic, for Franck is in no way a painter in the traditional mode of icons or iconographers. True icons, rooted in the earliest liturgy and worship of Eastern Christians, are made by those who are believers, and their creation is performed according to strict rules as a kind of prayer. Franck, on the other hand, calls himself an unaffiliated Catholic and Buddhist. Moreover, the materials, methods and uses of icons in the Byzantine, Greek or Russian style are all mandated by tradition right down to the boards, gesso, egg tempera, gilt and colors, but Franck’s drawings and paintings are often impulsive and original, and his metal sculptures are constructed in a contemporary style and employ contemporary material and technology.

Yet in their vision and aims, the ancient iconographer and the living artist seem to agree. Eastern Christian traditions, both Orthodox and Catholic, have continued to demonstrate that the image is also a word, a participation in mystery and an expression pointing to its meaning. Franck agrees that revelation is possible not only in the Word of the Bible, but also in the image of the human. As the second-century Eastern patristic formula phrases it, God became human so that we might become divine.

With this in mind, I went to see Franck recently to remind myself of the work that has grown out of his lifelong passion for seeing and to discover if his claim that his pieces are icons might have some justification in a world where people are still seeking sacred space and sacred meaning. A new exhibition of Franck’s work will be on display at Yale’s School of Sacred Music Sept. 20-Oct 22. I was eager to reconnect with the artist I had interviewed nine years earlier for a book I was writing on Mary (Franck has created many contemporary Madonnas) and whose drawings, paintings and sculpture are in museums around the world.

He is almost totally deaf and his eyesight is going, but his energy remains astonishing. The many recent canvases around us demonstrated that he still paints or draws almost daily. I sat down on a wooden chair in the small upstairs room at Pacem in Terris, his “transreligious” home-chapel-sculpture garden in Warwick, N.Y, which he shares with his wife Claske.

Almost immediately Franck launched into one of his innumerable stories that make me think long afterwards about what they really mean. Soon he was telling me about his design for a processional cross for the Cathedral of Antwerp in [Belgium]. It replaced a 15th-century cross that had disappeared, and the idea came to him to make a cross of olive wood sprouting with silver branches supporting the face of Christ as a living presence. “The 15th-century mystic Nicolas of Cusa saw it in all faces, ‘veiled as in a riddle,’ ” he said.

Then, leaning forward, he said passionately, “This cross of the Resurrection is to be carried through the clouds, not nailed to the wall.”

Franck spoke of his anger at the exploitation of sadomasochistic images to the neglect of the life-affirming Resurrection. That anger, he said, came to him through having lived in a century of such terrible suffering.

The suffering began for him as a boy of 5 in his village of Maastricht when he watched the Kaiser’s armies invade nearby Belgium. From his attic window, he saw a nearby town burn, felt his own house tremble from the boom of field guns and watched endless files of wretched people fleeing.

At the end of World War II, Franck painted a large five-panel sequence called “Requiem for the First Half of the Twentieth Century.” The middle panel contains a huge semi-abstract face streaked with red and black bearing the sorrow of both victims and perpetrators of the barbaric destruction, whose smaller faces surround his in the other four panels; it was called “Agnus Dei.”

“Art seems intimately linked to religion in your perspective,” I said. “Isn’t that unusual, considering your father was an agnostic?”

“Yes, he and my grandfather both, but they were deeply committed to justice at a time when socialism was just emerging. They hated the cruelty of Dutch colonialism. Not having the agnostic temperament at all, I absorbed the Catholic symbolism all around me. I looked at the lovely hometown church in Maastricht, the 13th-century Our Lady Star of the Sea, built on the foundations of a Roman temple. I didn’t go in -- I just looked at it from the outside, but there were always processions going on. For me it was wonderful: the Gregorian chant, the statue of Mary, candlelight, and above all the sacrament of the Eucharist as it was carried through the streets to the sick.”

He was immensely moved by the way passersby would kneel and make the sign of the cross when they saw the priest coming. He began to cross himself as a child and continues to do so, for he sees it as an instinctive response to the mystery of the universe.

“I think I began to understand, even if it took me 60 or 70 more years to realize it, that there is one overarching mystery; I would call it the mystery of existence -- that we are here at all and able to think and talk about this.”

When he was about 12, Franck developed a symbol of his own; he now calls it his first icon. In the local newspaper he had seen a photograph of an almost 2,000-year-old carving of a stone fish unearthed from the catacombs and learned that the fish was a symbol of Christ. The image mingled in his mind with a phrase he had often heard and loved but did not understand: the Mystical Body of Christ. And one evening in his imagination, he saw a cosmic fish rise behind the basilica of Our Lady and move in the direction of Orion. Each of its scales bore a human face.

“Through the years I have drawn the Cosmic Fish, painted it, engraved it, sculpted it in stone, in wood and steel, fired it on stained glass,” said Franck. “Still, I never caught the Fish; it caught me.”

It was perhaps the first clear signal that art was his true vocation. But that vocation was not easily followed, for his family, particularly his mother, had other plans: He was to become a successful doctor like his uncles.

“I didn’t dare to offend my mother. So I went to the University of Utrecht at 17 to study medicine, which didn’t interest me at all, and I sabotaged everything,” he said.

Franck audited lectures on Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and the arts. He read books on Zen. He painted and drew throughout these student years, having switched to dentistry because it gave him more time to do so.

He managed to get three degrees, one from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, as well as a teaching job in oral surgery in Pittsburgh, all the while painting passionately. His first one-man show in New York was in 1942, and many others would follow. After his service in World War II for the Dutch-East Indies government in Australia, he settled in New York, opened a dental practice and continued to paint. In Amsterdam in 1955, working on his first book, he met a serious young woman who responded to things -- saw things -- just as he did. In a few months, Claske joined him in his rundown loft on Bleecker Street.

They would abandon his practice temporarily in 1958 when they heard that Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a childhood hero of Franck’s, needed an oral surgeon in his clinic in Gabon. For three years Claske improvised the role of a nurse while Frederick drained abscesses and performed operations on the steady stream of patients who arrived in dugout canoes at Lambarene. And all the time, he made drawings of them, the jungle and the good doctor, which can be seen alongside his adventures in his Days with Albert Schweitzer and African Sketchbook. They are among more than 30 books Franck has written.

When they returned to his New York practice, Frederick and Claske ventured out on weekend drives and one day fell in love with the wreck of an old hotel on the Wawayanda River in Warwick, which they impulsively bought for $800. A Dutch windmill maker who lived nearby restored it to last 100 years.

But something happened once again to call the couple away, and this time to change their lives permanently. On Oct. 12, 1962, Franck saw a photo of Pope John XXIII on the front page of The New York Times and read the speech he had given at the opening session of the council he had convoked: “The aim of the Second Vatican Council is to consolidate the task toward the unity of humankind. ... The council now beginning rises in the church like daybreak.”

Franck felt he had heard the Spirit speak. He cancelled his appointments and telephoned Claske that they must go to Rome. He had to draw that old man who spoke with such wisdom and compassion.

In Rome, Franck was told it would be impossible to gain entrance to the council, but with the help of one of Claske’s relatives who was a bishop -- and a bit of skullduggery -- he did. Wearing a black suit and hat and carrying a black portfolio, he confidently walked in with a bishop’s arm around his shoulder and stayed to draw the council members during all four sessions.

After Franck had seen and drawn John in many different situations, he observed in his book, Watching the Vatican: “Only very, very rarely have I seen a face that -- fully alive -- showed the human in all its greatness, without a trace of falsity or pretense. It was in the face of Angelo Roncalli, better known as Pope John XXIII, that I saw this pure beauty of the Spirit. He was a fat man, not handsome, but beautiful, for he was a genius of the heart ... maskless.”

Working in his studio on the night of April 12, 1963, he heard over the radio a summary of John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris -- a powerful plea to all people of the earth to work for peace and justice. Frederick saw the pope in his mind’s eye and instantly drew what he saw using the pipette of his ink bottle. No prepared board with gesso, no traditional egg tempera paint or gilt halo, but nevertheless an icon of a saint.

Less than two months later he heard of the pope’s death. That night the couple flew again to Rome, and Frederick was able to draw John once more on his bier, “a dead man who was not dead to me, and never would be.”

Franck’s first impulse upon returning home was to turn the old stone mill across the river from their house into a chapel called Pacem in Terris, “a garbage dump turned into a sanctuary, for once, instead of the other way around.” He began to create sculptures for it, something he had never done before, including one of John XIII that is prominent in the finished chapel.

Now the old mill became his canvas. Beginning in 1966 and continuing to the present, professional artists have conducted a series of classical chamber music concerts in the chapel, where the high wooden roof creates exceptional acoustics. In the two sculpture gardens that slowly grew around the house, many other figures began to appear, and they now number about 70.

Signs of the aesthetic influence from Franck’s contact with Eastern religions are evident not only in particular sculptures such as the Kwan-yin Madonna carved out of wood but in the simplicity of most of his work. In the small house that was built to contain his stained glass Stations of the Cross, his Tao of the Cross is joined by 10 windows depicting the ancient Eastern parable of the Oxherd.

Each station was painted in vitreous enamels and silver stain, then fired in a kiln to bond the color to the glass. The colors are subdued, not the bright blues and reds of Chartres but grays and earth colors, conducive to meditation. The 10 windows depicting the spiritual progress of the Oxherd were drawn and then painstakingly transferred to glass. They consist of three layers of glass, the outer one in black and grays, the second etched, the third slightly sandblasted to produce a translucent, subtle texture when they are sandwiched together.

Eastern influence is also visible in Franck’s later work in metal, encountered in different places on the grounds. One such piece came about after a trip to Hiroshima. There he had seen burnt into a wall the shadow of a man whose shape he carved out of a large piece of black metal. Looking through the empty human space, the positive man who was carved out can be seen rising in the distance. Franck calls it “The Unkillable Man” or, sometimes, “Resurrection.”

Franck’s inspirations often mingle memory with vision. A seven-foot steel Madonna is a direct descendant of the medieval virgin he knew as a child, whose cloak opened to reveal Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In his rendition, her long metal cloak opens to reveal the Original Face, a Buddhist concept that, for Franck, merges with the Face of Faces. “For me, she is the person who can accept and contain that face, her son’s and her own. Her face is blank because she is potentially every woman, every man,” he said.

In the winter of 2004, he was looking again at his “Requiem” painting from the ’40s, which was included in a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., retrospective. Franck had not seen the “Agnus Dei” for decades, but as he looked at this suffering countenance, he realized that he had portrayed the Face of Faces long ago.

“I still find it surprising, for I never thought of my work as iconic,” he said.

At least since the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea invited artists to create icons: “Arise now before me, you iconographers of the saints’ merits,” he urged, believing like the other great Eastern Fathers that both writing and painting transmitted the word of God, one to the ear, the other to the eye.

In his constant quest to reveal the divine in nature and in humans, Franck has responded to that invitation.

So often responding to impulse and chance, Frederick Franck has yet managed to live and work in a way that is faithful to the intense mystic vision of his childhood. It is remarkable to look back at his early painting, trace his growing mastery and the expansion of his subject matter, and finally discover the unity of purpose his works convey.

Sally Cunneen is the author of In Search of Mary and other books and is a member of Yaroslava Mills’ icon class.

For more on Franck and his works

Although the best-known of Franck’s 30-plus books is The Zen of Seeing, available at most libraries, those who wish to see and read more about him and his art might start with two highly readable, well-illustrated recent books: A Passion for Seeing: Frederick Franck on Being an Image Maker and Pacem in Terris: A Love Story. Both are printed by Codhill Press, New Paltz, N.Y. Telephone: (800) 856-8664.

Some may want to attend his upcoming show at Yale’s School of Sacred Music in the fall Sept. 20-Oct. 22.

Those who want to visit Pacem in Terris and its sculpture gardens should call to find out when to go rather than dropping in. Telephone: (845) 987-9968.

-- Sally Cunneen

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 20044   [corrected 10/08/2004]

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: