It happened by chance: a phone call from a fill-in broadcaster from Britain’s Channel 5: “Would you like to make a series of films about impressionists?” It was the heady days where a public service requirement meant broadcasters had to deliver 26 hours of arts programming a year.
Thinking he was talking about comedians, Phil Grabsky immediately said yes. “When a broadcaster rings you up like that, you say ‘yeah, sure!’”
Grabsky has since clocked up nearly 200 documentaries about artists and art exhibitions and won multiple awards. His company Seventh Art Productions is now Britain’s – and probably the world’s – largest independent producer of arts films.
The Big Idea was invited to talk with Grabsky ahead of the New Zealand premiere of the fifth season of his Exhibition On Screen series this month. Making art about art and bringing an audience to one artistic medium through another was something we thought we’d like to know more about.
Art about art is popular
The half-hour biographies about impressionists commissioned in 1998 were so popular on Sunday afternoons that they were replayed at peak times. “They just kept re-commissioning us and re-commissioning us, until that particular channel was brought by a newspaper and that was the end of that."
Grabsky is somewhat of a biography specialist having started his career making history films. “It wasn’t deliberate it’s just the way things have worked out.
“I’d always known and believed that people, we the general audience, love good stories, and actually we love history and we love art. There’s no one on this planet that can’t be excited and enthralled to read a really good biography. I don’t care who you are what social class, what race what religion.
“Artist biographies are fantastic stories and they provide multiple examples of what we are capable of. It’s quite plausible that people like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci made art that exists nowhere else in the universe.”
The entire Exhibition on Screen series now consists of 19 full-length films shown in 61 countries and explore exhibitions of Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Goya, Munch, Manet, Analetto to name a few.
The films are made with legacy in mind, and after the cinema, are released on DVD and often sold to TV stations and galleries. They’re not streamed – yet. That’s the juggernaut coming down the road, Grabsky signals.
But if there’s one frustration for him it’s empty seats and limited screenings – with limited time for the word to spread about the films. “It’s not a boast, but the audience absolutely loves the films, at a Q and A you have to allow half an hour for the audience to express their joy.”
Let’s be clear, Grabsky’s films are not illustrated lectures. “There’s so much demand on people’s time that we have to convince you that you will be entertained as well as informed. Cinema is about storytelling.”
The score is carefully composed and choreographed for each film, and he usually has a draft composition to listen to while filming. “The score holds the edit together,” says Grabsky, who works exclusively with two composers, Asa Bennett and Stephen Baysted.
“Filmmakers sometimes start by thinking about the marketing or the poster. The first thing you should really think about is the score, because that sets the mood.” For Hockney, the score is jazzy and a little energetic.
David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts is the first and by many measures most unique in Season 5 of the series. It’s the first about a living artist, which opened the door to the possibility of hearing the story behind the art firsthand through intimate interviews. “The great, great thing about David Hockney is that he’s funny. People need humour.”
The film explores two of Hockney's exhibitions from his late career: the 2012 show ‘A Bigger Picture’ and the 2016 show ‘82 Portraits and One Still Life’.
Other titles in Season 5 will be released later in the year: Canaletto & the art of Venice, Cezanne. Portraits of a life, Vincent Van Gogh: A new way of seeing and I, Claude Monet.
Exhibition On Screen opens in New Zealand cinemas on May 24.