“Art is about the Story, Cinema is about the Story..”
Opera and ballet have long screened performances in cinemas – Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff of Exhibition on Screen believe the art exhibitions can project themselves to fresh audiences this way too
Article by Andrew Steel
In 2009, documentary makers Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff found themselves working on Making War Horse, an in-depth two-hour feature focused on the National Theatre’s adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo novel of the same name. Both were veterans of the scene, with just shy of half-a-century’s combined worth of experience – and over some 150 films to boot. Whilst capturing the behind-the-scenes action of the production, the two noticed that the company was gearing up to broadcast War Horse live into cinemas, as part of the inaugural National Theatre Live season. For them, it lit a spark of interest; having seen the Metropolitan Opera in New York also try the same tack, could such programming be extended to other mediums beyond the stage?
“I thought of these films as live art screenings almost,” Phil acknowledges in a conversation with Riddle in early August, “and I felt that we could do that for the cinema too.” Eight years on from its genesis, he and David are about to launch the fifth season of Exhibition on Screen, a series of cinematic documentaries each detailing the output of a particular artist, through intersplicing isolated footage taken from galleries alongside location shooting to trace the relevant history of different works. For the filmmakers, it is about bringing the art to the masses in an accessible, intelligent manner to rival that of live opera or ballet screenings.
“Ninety-five percent of the world have absolutely no way that they can get to all these great exhibitions,” Phil notes. “They would find it very hard to see the majority of these paintings. What we’re offering is that – with context. Take Cezanne, in the upcoming season. We focus on the current exhibition taking place in Paris. But we’re also going to show you the biography, take in the house he lived in, the studios he worked at and the very paths he walked. Cinema is always about storytelling and it’s knowing what part of the story you need tell. When you read through 3,000 letters written by Monet, what are the 50 most essential to him to quote from? That’s where our experience comes in.”
Having already charted the lives of artistic luminaries such as Van Gough, Matisse and Rembrandt, the latest trilogy of films includes the pair’s first feature focusing on a living artist, in the shape of Yorkshireman David Hockney, alongside Paul Cezanne and Canaletto. The duo are faced with a difficult balance throughout too; striking the balance between iconoclastic figures – revered entrenched in public consciousness – and those lesser known.
“We’re trying to create a brand that people enjoy, and that they’ll come to because of the name, not necessarily the artist,” Phil enthuses. “For the Met and the National Theatre, they’ve got the stardust, like Renee Fleming and Helen Mirren, to bring people through that don’t know the title. We have to be cautious too. Monet did extremely well for us, but a really strong feature about the American impressionists didn’t do as well, because people were less aware of them. We’re always on the lookout to balance it.”
Regarding Hockney’s inclusion, Phil is effusive in his admiration. “If you want to make a film about a living artist, it has to be one who stands up amongst Rembrandt, Van Gogh and other art titans. David Hockney is someone we admire for that reason. The film contains his 2012 and 2016 exhibitions at the Royal Academy, so to some extent, this has been the longest we’ve worked on one of these films. The energy, the creativity and the vitality he still shows as an 80 year-old man… it’s quite something.”
In the case of Canaletto, the film stemmed from an ongoing desire to work with The Royal Collection on one of their pieces, finally landing on the Italian as a suitable subject after discovering that the private assemblage contained the world’s largest collection of 18th century Venetian art. “When we heard they were doing it, we thought it was perfect,” Phil notes. “One of those artists whose name is certainly recognisable. He played with things to make them more pictorial in his work, and had a mastery of light in his output. But that aside, we want to know why The Royal Collection has all of the Canalettos and work of that era – how did they end up in their possession? That’s part of the story we tell here.”
And what of Cezanne, the last of the trio? For Phil, it is somewhat of a passion project amongst this batch. “He is just one of my favourite artists. I’ve wanted to do a film about Cezanne for a long time – we knew his life story, we’d seen his letters. We heard a rumour that the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in Washington – institutions that we know and love – were doing a combined show, the first ever, of his portraits. We immediately thought it would make a great film because the portraits give a narrative structure to his chronology; it really highlights why he was such a significant and influential artist on those who followed.”
So far, Exhibition on Screen has only taken in galleries from Europe and the United States. Given its funding limitations, the team have only been able to broaden their global portfolio as success has risen – and with five seasons in the can, are looking to expand to further continents. “Right from the start, it’s been very important that we looked as international as we could be. We’re in conversation with China, Mexico, South Africa and Canada amongst others about projects right now. We’re broadcast in 55 countries – there is the sense that is a communal experience and that is something transformational.”
Next year, first season films will return for limited screenings after audience demand, such as the Van Gogh and Monet features. Encores as such, Phil calls them. With the future looking rosy for Exhibition on Screen, what does he feel is the key to their underlying accomplishments? The director mulls it over. “Anyone who says they’re not interested in art is deceiving themselves. Everyone is interested in art in some way or other, whether it’s the pictures hanging on your wall or the colour of your dress. And art is about the story, cinema is about the story. When you come to the cinema, you want to be entertained and informed, and it’s fantastic that we’re able to bring this to the world. Absolutely brilliant.”
Enquiries: Exhibition on Screen/ exhibitiononscreen.com