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Phil Grabsky's Front Row Seat To Renoir Art Collection

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, Photo of Renoir | © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN
Renoir - Revered and Reviled, Photo of Renoir | © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN
Ever wanted to see the incredible artwork from permanent collections across the world? Director of documentary and producer of EXHIBITION ON SCREEN, Phil Grabsky, is providing audiences with front row seats to world class art collections. Featuring exclusive interviews and behind the scenes footage, the series’ latest film, Renoir – Revered and Reviled – premiering in the UK – provides unrestricted access to the largest Renoir collection at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. We caught up with Grabsky to find out more.
Renoir - Revered and Reviled Phil Grabsky in front of Luncheon of the Boating Party 1881 © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

Congratulations on your new documentary film, which brings Renoir to screens across the world. Especially because the works being featured have never been seen in the UK before. What inspired you to bring this Renoir collection to the cinema?

The Barnes Foundation came to us and said they loved EXHIBITION ON SCREEN and asked whether I would come and see their collection and consider a film about it. So, I flew to Philadelphia and was aghast at the quality of what they own. Whilst I originally intended to make a full collection film with them, down the line I quickly decided that it was Barnes’ passion for Renoir that was what really fascinated me at this moment.

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, View of Renoir wall with Sailor Boy © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

Why is sharing the world’s largest Renoir collection so important to you?

It’s not the quantity that I want to talk about, but Renoir as an artist who was so instrumental in the development of the impressionist movement – and who painted some absolute masterpieces as an ‘impressionist’ – but who then changed course very radically and, in doing so, teed up the two masters of the 20th century, namely Matisse and Picasso.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Children on the Seashore, Guernsey (Enfants au bord de la mer à Guernesey), 1883. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

There is an incredible amount of Renoir works in this collection – 181 to be exact – what, do you believe, is the most remarkable piece in this collection?

There’s no question that there are too many on display, but the minute Barnes died it fixed the collection and the way it is exhibited for ever. Sometimes less is more, for sure. So you need to pause and look. You don’t need to try and look at every painting. For me, today, I’d say Torso before the Bath. Maybe because I see character in that woman which isn’t often the case in these later Renoirs. But that wasn’t what he was trying to achieve – he was exploring technique and in that he was a master, an absolute master.

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, View of Renoir wall with Sailor Boy © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

What challenges – if any – did you face in filming and editing this film?

Any film is challenging. My audience is all ages, all groups and the day before they may have watched Spectre or Star Wars. Cinema has to be, of course, cinematic. It needs be story-telling, entertaining and, in my films at least, informative too. The challenges with this film were in terms of the narrative – what story or stories are we telling? What’s keeping the audience gripped? What events from Renoir’s life do we include? What locations away from the gallery do we film? For example his several homes in France. In terms of editing, it’s finding that balance between pace – which a film needs – and the ability to look, to reflect, to absorb. My audience are never treated as fools with no powers of concentration. My audience may barely have heard of Renoir but they are willing to learn, to be enthralled, to be transported back in history but also to journey towards a better understanding of our own world.

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, Filming The Artist's Family (Renoir, 1896) at The Barnes Foundation © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

What do you hope the audience will get from this experience?

A love of cinema, a love of art, a love of the community of watching a film in a group – and an appreciation of one of the world’s great artists. In this high-speed world you can afford to spend 80-90 minutes in a dark room being presented evidence once again of what men and women are capable of in a positive way.

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, Damian Callan painting © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

With an ever growing list of EXHIBITION ON SCREEN documentaries, which has been the most rewarding?

That’s really tough. Leonardo was our first film and the first of its kind ever. People – especially the cinema chains worldwide – thought we were crazy. Leonardo showed them – because people queued around the block – that we weren’t. I’ve loved all our films since then but I guess I took particular satisfaction in our Van Gogh film. It took over two years to secure access and the minute the film went out the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam said ‘great, what can we work on together next?’. In fact, I am very proud of the fact that every one of the galleries we have worked with wants us back. Those relationships have taken me 15 years to establish but to have the directors of the world’s greatest galleries contacting me with their plans for the next 3-5 years is an honour.

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, Two people in front of paintings at The Barnes Foundation © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

Is there anything that you dream of one day filming? What is it? Why?

We are constantly pushing the boundaries of what our audience will come to see. Now we are doing permanent collections, shows on a particular theme, biographies not based on a specific exhibition. We are taking our films worldwide – what I’d like to work towards is bringing the world’s art back to North America & Europe. So I have visited Australia, Asia especially China, Qatar, Mexico…

Renoir - Revered and Reviled Martha Lucy and Barbara Buckley at The Barnes Foundation © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

Why should people know more about history and art?

As far as I’m concerned, every day you wake up you should remind yourself of the enormous improbability of life on earth. Consider the staggering development of the human brain. How can you take a breath in this world and not be interested in history and art? Anyway, even those who glibly say ‘I’m not interested in art’ actually are…look at their clothes, or homes, or jewellery, etc. They just haven’t had someone share the passion, open the doors, tell the stories….and that’s our job.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Composition, Five Bathers (Composition, cinq baigneuses), 1918. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

What inspired you to become a documentary filmmaker?

Curiosity and a love of story-telling.

What’s next?

I am humbled by how many projects we have on offer or on the cards – but what’s next is finding the money to make them. Nevertheless, we have some massive films coming for next season. Every season I think we can’t top it and then we do!

Renoir - Revered and Reviled, View of Renoir wall © EXHIBITION ON SCREEN

What advice would you give to younger generations of documentary filmmakers?

95% effort and 5% inspiration. Be honourable – better to fail with dignity than lie your way up the ladder. Respect those you film and those that help you make films – you are the least important person in that room. And in every contract you do, start with the worst case scenarios and work backwards… But above all perhaps: it is a craft and unless you make a film you’ll be proud to watch in 20 years you haven’t studied, researched, sweated enough.

Renoir – Revered and Reviled is released in cinemas nationwide from 16th February 2016 (worldwide from 15th March 2016). To find your nearest screening, visit EXHIBITION ON SCREEN.

Interview conducted by Ellie Griffiths