Great paintings, in a cinema near you

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AI talks to the film maker Phil Grabsky about Exhibition on Screen and a new way to see art


By the time it closes on April 20 the Royal Academy’s exhibition Painting the Mod- ern Garden: Monet to Matisse will have been seen by hundreds of thousands. In the following months it will be seen around the world by thousands more at cinemas.

But the film they see, created and released this week by Phil Grabsky’s Brighton-based Exhibition on Screen company, is not just a record of a popular visual art show: it is the exhibition plus a story, the sense of the show but breaking the bounds of gallery space to visit the sites of the gardens, talk to artists, gardeners and curators and build a new dimension to the vision of the exhibition curator in a 90 minute narrative.

Exhibition on Screen is the latest evolution from what became known as “event cinema” – films, often live casts, of artistic events such as opera and plays.

It is the 12th exhibition the company has featured since 2011 and this is the third season. It began when Grabsky, a documentary film maker for 32 years who first made his name in television, saw a new way to indulge his love of art, history and biography. The idea to make a film of a blockbuster exhibition grew from the arrival of opera from the Metropolitan Opera in New York in a live feed to art house cinemas. The Royal Opera House followed the cue and in 2009 the National Theatre experimented with a live performance for cinemas of Helen Mirren’s Phédre, the first NT Live produc- tion, and there have been 20 NT Live screenings since with A View from the Bridge to return to cin- emas next month.

Working with the artist and film maker David Bickerstaff who is now a permanent part of Exhibition on Screen, in 2009 Grabsky, made a film of the National’s box office hit War Horse, but they already had another idea and went to the National Gallery with it. “They said, ‘We don’t really know what you’re talking about, why would anyone want to watch a film when they can see the actual exhibition?’ But they said we were in luck because their next big show was Leonardo and they would co-operate on a film of that” Grabsky says. As it was, the exhibition broke records, with queues forming outside the Sainsbury Wing at 5am and many thousands unable to see the exhibition. The film in turn has been seen in 40 countries, selling out several times in Australia, and is still touring.

Exhibition on Screen was born with the Leonardo film when Grabsky and his wife and business partner in the documentary film company Seventh Art, Amanda Wilkie, decided to sink their own resources into the project investing their all in cinema audiences of the future discovering a love for art.

But it was a hard journey through the brutal world of television that Wilkie and Grabsky had to endure. Grabsky graduated from film school in 1984 with a film on the Dalai Lama to offer, and the ITV network bought it. He made social documentaries ex- ploring life in Afghanistan, Angola and Nigeria, working for Channel 4, ITV, the BBC and American channels such as Discovery and Arts & Entertainment. He made historical docu- mentaries, like I, Caesar, about the fall of the Roman Empire for the BBC, The Great Commanders, about leaders from Alexander the Great to Ulysses S Grant which became a successful book, and about Spain. His 2003 film The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan about post-Taliban Afghanistan won 13 awards.

He linked up with the art historian and curator Tim Marlow to make a series for Channel 5, Tim Marlow on..., and when the channel’s policy to arts broadcasting changed under its new owner, he moved to Sky Arts. He began a series of music biogra- phies starting with In Search of Mozart followed by Beethoven, Haydn and most recently Chopin. 

The first 15 years of his career, he says, was about the relationship between the film maker and television at a time when his contact would be a single commissioning editor, but he became disillusioned by televi- sion when “middle management took over”. Decisions were difficult to get, and when they had been made they were easily reneged on – commissioned by the BBC to make a history film with Terry Jones, he found out by accident that it was to be made by someone else, and a contract with Sky Arts was cancelled when the rocket- ing price of football broadcast rights meant budget cutbacks for the channel. After the success of his Roman film the Controller of BBC2 took him to one side to say that there was no future for arts broadcasting at the BBC, and he believes the policy was only changed by a row in the House of Commons, coinciding with charter renewal time, over why the commercial Channel 5 and not the publicly funded BBC had presented his Impressionists film.

“No, I’ve had enough of television” Grabsky says. “Exhibition on Screen are legacy films, films we want people to be watching in 20 years’ time”. The first to take him up was the art house chain Picturehouse, which also was at first unconvinced until Leonardo proved a box office success. After Leonardo in season one came Manet, Munch and Vermeer, and each involves travelling to the parts of the world in which the subjects lived. In season two there was Matisse followed by Girl with a Pearl Earring about Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and the Impressionists. The present season has been Goya, Re-noir and Painting the Modern Garden, to be followed by Bosch, and he would like to make a film about the great but unregarded art in our regional collections.

But funding the operation is difficult. With no public grants, little business sponsorship and no philanthropy available, most of the £250,000 each film costs to make must come from Seventh Art resources.

Exhibition on Screen films are not event movies, however. “Live streaming is a limited experience which doesn’t need the art of a director” Grabsky says. “Our films are more than images, they tell stories, and that is the future”. The new film, therefore, does more than tour the exhibition but also visits the gardens painted by not only Monet but Bonnard, Sorolla, Sargent, Pissarro, Matisse and Van Gogh, no longer with a central presenter but with the artists, gardeners and art historians talking directly to the audience.

“Leonardo showed us that people want to look at art, and television would never show paintings as I want to show them” Grabsky says. “We want to ask questions, analyse them and add them to our storyline. We can complement the exhibition and make something completely new too.”

There will be special evening screenings of a condensed version of the film at the Royal Academy on April 15 and 16. Check for details at www.royalacademy.

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