Interview with Phil Grabsky

by Simon on April 21, 2013 · 0 comments

Filmmaker Phil Grabsky wants more people to go to art galleries. The man behind celebrated documentary films about Mozart and Beethoven has now turned his attention to art, working with some of the most prestigious exhibitions and galleries in the world and creating a new experience: the exhibition event film, a cinematic portrayal of a blockbuster art exhibition.

Phil_GrabskyThe idea gives audiences around the world the chance to see great art like it’s never been seen before. Grabsky is adamant, however, that it’s not a substitute for the real thing. “I encourage people to go to see the exhibition itself, and I want more people to visit more galleries,” he says. “But for most of the world’s population, they’re not going to be able to see, for example, the Manet exhibition in London. Last week we beamed the Manet film via seven satellites to 1000 cinemas across the world. Ninety-nine per cent of those people have no chance of visiting the Royal Academy for the 12 weeks the exhibition is on.” The experience is neither pure documentary nor the straightforward capturing of a live event, presenting Grabsky with some significant challenges.

“It’s an interesting balance we have to strike with the film,” says Grabsky, who was recently in Australia visiting galleries, “because we want to bring the exhibition to an audience – like here in Australia – but it can’t just be a walk-through, and we don’t have the time to show everything in 90 minutes.”

“Of course, the film has to reflect the exhibition, but we need to make choices about what is seen. We must have really insightful guest speakers, and a really good biography of the artist. And there are some interesting decisions to make about how long you look at a painting, when you move to close-ups, and what questions the audience would be asking at any point.” A series of three films, all under the label Great Art on Screen, will be shown in Australia in 2013. Following Manet – Portraying Life from The Royal Academy in London, is Munch 150 from the Munch Museum and National Museum in Oslo, and Vermeer and Music from the National Gallery in London.

manet2It takes Grabsky many years to bring an exhibition to the cinema, working with curators and institutions from the time they first conceive the exhibition, often three to five years before a gallery opening. Convincing museums of the concept of a film has been a challenge for Grabsky, but once curators realise what he and his team create, they have embraced the idea.

“The reasons they are so happy with the films,” says Grabsky, “is that an exhibition they have worked on so hard, and for so long, gets recorded, and their contributions are seen in 30 or more countries. Curators want to communicate their love of art and artists and this medium takes it far beyond their borders.”

Grabsky begins the Manet film with a nod to the live opening of the exhibition in London, with host and art historian Tim Marlow inviting us to go behind the scenes. The film then glides through the gallery, pausing at artworks captured in stunning high-definition digital video, before introducing curators and expert commentators who contextualise the work and provide interpretations.

Making sure the film stays close to the thinking behind the exhibition is critical for Grabsky. “We hustle the curators for a long time,” he admits, ”working out what their argument is and making sure we get what they’re trying to say. They understand that we can’t show everything, but we reflect their intentions. Manet is about portraiture, so that remains the focus.”

But Grabsky has an advantage that curators, bound by physical objects, can’t match. He can introduce relevant missing works by taking his cameras and crew to another gallery.

“Inter-gallery loans are very difficult to organise,” he says, ”and we can bring in other works when it makes sense. In the Manet film, we include famous works like A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which is at the Courtauld Institute, and Olympia, which is in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

A documentary filmmaker for 30 years, Grabsky is clearly excited about the venture into art. But his first films were about people, such as the Dalai Lama, Pele and Muhammad Ali, and his most popular films are the In Search of series about composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. Known for his biographies, he laughs when recalling a phone call he received from a commissioning producer to make a film about impressionists. ”I honestly thought for a moment they were talking about stand-up comedians.”

Yet, whether he’s making films about people or their art, he has an enormous respect for the audience. “We don’t dumb down anything,” he says. “The art films are made for people who appreciate art. But we want to encourage younger people to get to galleries and people who haven’t been to an art exhibition before. My two kids were not too keen to go to their first sushi restaurant, but now they love it. It’s part of our job as filmmakers to encourage people to do things they haven’t done before.”

Which brings our conversation back to the role of the gallery. Grabsky gets a little philosophical. “I’m such a believer in community,” he says. “Here in the UK, our post offices have closed down, our banks are more and more anonymous, people do their shopping online, and even our pubs are closing. Where do you go to meet people and bump into other humans?”

“Well, there are some great parks, but galleries are getting better and better at becoming a great place to wander around. The shops are better and the cafes are better, and if you can stop and be engaged by a painting for a few moments, well that’s brilliant.”

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