Degas ballet painting

Interview: Exhibition on Screen director Phil Grabsky

The hugely popular Exhibition on Screen series returns with Degas, and Glam chats to the producer, Phil Grabsky.

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As a cinema enthusiast with a taste for what many would call ‘arthouse films’, but also with a limited knowledge of history’s great painters, the chance to speak to Phil Grabsky – whose series Exhibition On Screen has reached its sixth season and twentieth title – seemed like an ideal opportunity to learn about this remarkable success story in theatrically exhibiting genuine ‘art cinema’, documentaries that have profiled the life and works of such luminaries as Monet, Renoir, and Hockney. It was indeed a pleasure to discover – in conversation with Mr Grabsky – a little about the origins and motivation of this distinguished project.

Exhibition on Screen was my idea, begun in 2009. My company and I had become the world’s biggest independent producers of art films for television, but it was a struggle, and I could see that technology was moving very fast towards enormously changing – and improving – cinema.

“From the success enjoyed by a number of my documentaries profiling great composers, some of which had played theatrically in long runs, I sensed that there was an audience with an appetite to go to the cinema and watch the kinds of movies that I wanted to make.

“Initially, exhibitors in the U.K. wondered ‘Who’d go to the cinema to see an art exhibition?’ – but with Exhibition On Screen’s first film, about a major Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, we played in 42 cinemas, and 41 of them had to turn people away! Today, we play in more than sixty countries.”

After viewing Degas: Passion for Perfection – directed by David Bickerstaff (an Aussie!) – one certainly comes away feeling informed and entertained by a carefully researched and beautifully constructed profile, with commendable attention paid to cinematography, editing, and music. Mr Grabsky explained why Degas was chosen for profile by Exhibition On Screen:

“Degas is plausibly the least-known of the big-name impressionists, but certainly one of the greatest. My audience’s knowledge of him might be limited to the famous paintings of ballet dancers – but we have no embarrassment in telling the broader story and saying ‘This is a name that you know – but who was he, really? What were his influences? What was he trying to do? What did he do?’”

Did this latest entry in the Exhibition On Screen series present any unique challenges in putting it together?

“There were a couple. The exhibition we had chosen to focus on (at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) didn’t immediately lend itself to cinematic storytelling. We had to work quite hard to identify the drama that would drive this film through. You also don’t want, after twenty films, to have a formula that repeats.”

Mr Grabsky was keen to emphasise what he feels that today’s cinema audiences can learn from painters such as Degas, as well as what sets this artist apart from others of his era:

“The Impressionists are unquestionably the world’s favourite genre of artists, because they’re ‘easy to read’, and also because we, as humans are attracted to the bright, bold colours they used. The more you look at the work of the Impressionists, the more there is to appreciate. They studied colour theory in a way that filmmakers should today but don’t.

In alliance with the exhibition, we can show you that Degas had this burning desire to end every single day better than how he started it. He was different in the sense that he wasn’t really engaged by – or motivated by – the market, due to his middle-class income. For him, it is about the process; he just tried to make the best painting he could, whether it sold or not.

We hope that a viewer will dive into Degas: Passion for Perfection and leave with a much greater emotional sense of who our subject was. You’ll come away thinking: ‘I don’t know how a human being does this.’”

Degas: Passion for Perfection opens this week, and is screening at PalaceNova, Eastend only.

For further information, click here.

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