The retired diplomat tells Shirley Lau about heading the German consulate in Hong Kong, having his flat bugged in communist Prague and his new career as an artist.
THE MADONNA AND ME I was born shortly after the end of the second world war. In my hometown, Munich (in Germany), boys like me used to play over the ruins of damaged buildings. I loved drawing and was good at it. At school I would make portraits of my classmates and sell them. Once I drew a portrait of the Madonna with a chalk on the classroom blackboard. None of the teachers wanted to wipe it off and it stayed there for three days. That was an enormous boost to my confidence!
ARTS AND GRAFT All these years I have not stopped painting in my free time. But professionally I became a diplomat, a job that opened (up) the world to me, and afforded me the opportunity to get to know the most important people in politics, business and the cultural sphere in my guest countries. Diplomats are civil servants who live a very colourful life. My schedule was perennially full, especially when I was posted to big cities like Hong Kong, where I was the consul general of Germany between 2005 and 2010. I would have a meeting with the government during the day and see Wong Kar-wai at a film premiere in the evening.
GETTING REAL When diplomats retire, they may feel there is a void in their life as the phone stops ringing and their social calendar suddenly has a lot of space. They may go on to write a book, give lectures, become a consultant or travel the world. I retired in 2010 and returned to Germany. I have been asked to give university lectures in Asia from time to time. The first nine months of my retirement were fine, but then a backlash set in. My daughter told me, “Welcome to the real world!” So I became a full-time artist back in the “real world”.
IN A FUNKHAUS In Berlin, where I live, I rent a small studio in a colossal compound called Funkhaus Berlin, in the east of the city. The building used to house the German Democratic Republic’s broadcast station before the Berlin Wall came down (in 1989). Everything from the telephone in the old lift to the incredibly long hallways are a throwback to socialist East Germany of the 1950s. Today it’s a home for artists and musicians. I like the atmosphere there. When you paint you are confronted with yourself. You want to create something that convinces you before it can convince others. Being a diplomat, you satisfy yourself with the applause you receive for giving a good speech or compliments for (pulling off) a well-organised state visit. But what you do at work, any other well-trained diplomat can do. It’s a job that involves expressing your social personality, whereas in art you express your artistic personality. Being able to now follow the path that I did not take in my youth makes me very happy.
CHANGING CANVAS I have completed many works over the past few years and I am showing some of them in Hong Kong. It’s exciting to be back in this city and catch up with old friends. I am aware Hong Kong has changed a lot in recent years. The other day my wife went to her favourite tailor shop only to find the tailor had had to move because her landlord doubled the rent. New gigantic buildings have sprung into being and more of the harbour has been reclaimed. This is a city famous for its glitz and glamour, but I know behind all that there are also people living in cage homes.
SNUG AS THE BUGS I speak several foreign languages and am learning Chinese; a never-ending project. These skills have rewarded me with the opportunity to work in some interesting cities. Tokyo is fascinating and mysterious. I think Japanese culture is the pinnacle of refinement in the smallest details. London is, for me, the most international capital in Europe. As a straightforward German, however, I found it interesting to work in a culture where “we must meet more often” can mean “we will most likely never meet again”. In Milan, elegance comes first. If you wear nice shoes, the locals will work their way up to your suit, then your face. Prague is the most romantic city. When I was posted there, Czechoslovakia was a communist country. Somewhere in our flat there were listening devices planted by the authorities. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. If the heating didn’t work, well, you said it loudly to your wife at home hoping the authorities would overhear and fix it. It is said that one New Year’s Eve, officials at the German embassy in Prague celebrated in their bugged office. At one point they toasted the invisible authorities and shouted to the air: “To the Prague officials who have to do all the horrible work of overhearing and translating our boring conversations!” A minute later, the phone rang. On the line was the sound of a champagne cork popping.
IN THE FAMILY FOLD The downside of moving around so much for diplomats is that it’s not easy for their families. While the diplomats find a similar work environment with familiar faces in each new location, the spouse and children have to adapt to totally new surroundings and make new friends. There have been times when my two daughters protested loudly against moving because they didn’t want to leave their friends. But, fortunately, they’re healthy grown-ups. One works in the Royal Opera House in London and the other is a film script writer in Berlin. My wife is a singer. Now I’ve joined them (in the arts by) becoming a full-time artist. After Hong Kong, I will return to Berlin, drive 30 minutes to Funkhaus every day and work quietly in my studio. Some time later I will re-emerge in Venice, where I will have another exhibition. Being seen is what keeps a painter’s work alive.
Frank Burbach’s exhibition “Revisit” runs until Thursday at the Art Beatus Gallery, 129 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2522 1138; www.artbeatus.com.