Thursday, 9 August 2018


The Orchestra at the Opera, c.1870, Degas, Edgar, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, Bridgeman Images
This is a painting that contains many elements that I love.  Music, ballet, opera, real-life characters, mid-19th century France, theatre and, of course, art.  I was reminded of this painting recently when involved in the edit of our next film – DEGAS: PASSION FOR PERFECTION.  Degas has always been the impressionist that intrigued me the most. Somehow he is the most mysterious and a passing awareness of him would suggest he's a man that likes ballerinas or racehorses but, as ever, there is so much more to any artist than the subject matter they may choose. Actually a large proportion of his work is portraiture. This painting is in some ways no exception. The bassoonist at the art of the work is Désiré Dihau and indeed the majority of the musicians are actual friends and musicians. The configuration of the instrumentation makes little sense but the feeling of energy and confined space overrides that. You can sense the energy going into the music and what great fun it must have been to be in the audience.  Degas has brought the orchestra almost to the level of the stage. He hasn’t portrayed them as they would normally be – almost hidden below stage. He’s not interested in reality he’s interested in what his painting suggests.

The ballerinas behind are almost an afterthought but they are especially significant as they were the first picture of ballerinas that Degas did. Nowadays if he is known for anything it is that very subject matter and many paintings, pastels and indeed sculptures he did of ballerinas – not least behind stage in rehearsal rooms overseen by tutors and mothers. I admire this painting for all the tricks Degas is using : look at those lines that force your eye from one character to the next. The line of the harp takes you down the shoulder of the bassoonist then up we go along the bassoon along the bassists’ shoulder to his instrument and its neck takes us to the headless ballerinas. A little head on the left stops us drifting out of frame and instead that head’s eyes bounce us back along the stage and round we go again.  The multicoloured tutus clash and contrast with the black of the orchestra and the brown furnishing of the opera itself. Degas was in his mid thirties when he made this work and was a single, dedicated, complex man with an absolute passion. For him the painting was unfinished but the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian was what prevented him from finishing it. I don’t see what he needed to change – it’s fabulous, brash, noisy and fun just the way it is. 

Monday, 2 July 2018

Great Art ITV returned to screens!

"Remarkable, educational and hugely enjoyable" The Times
“Illuminating and valuable” The Observer 
“Accessible and entertaining” The Telegraph

Our latest TV series Great Art returned to ITV screens on Thursday 10th May, 2018 for a second series which featured five new 50-minute episodes delving into the lives of iconic artists including Hockey, Bosch and Manet. After Series One aired in January this year, marking ITV’s return to arts programming, we were determined to increase our audience with the second series and further encourage ITV audiences to fully embrace our art films on television. Something that stuck with us from Series One, and encouraged us to work tirelessly on Series Two, was Mark Hudson (Art Critic) of The Telegraph's comment on the series:

"There’s nothing like a product name that tells you exactly what you’re going to get. With its resolutely uncomplicated two-word title, ITV’s new art series has a ring of back-to-basics bluntness. Produced by Phil Grabsky, whose Exhibition on Screen films have taken blockbuster exhibitions to cinemas around Britain – and the world – in the form of easily comprehensible, immersive documentaries, Great Art, which starts tonight, is out to bring “serious art” back to mainstream TV from the ghettoes of BBC 4 and Sky Arts" 

We knew that cementing our place on a commercial TV channel was going to be an arduous task, especially as ITV arts programming has been scarce of recent years but after a fantastic response from Series One - from press and public, we were delighted to see the second series sparked even more interest and appreciation. Series Two received over 50 previews and reviews.

We've been making art films for TV and cinema for over twenty years now. Our Great Art series for ITV has been a real highlight and pleasure. It's wonderful to work on a project that sheds new light on some of the world's renowned artists, and bring these new perspectives to a mainstream audience. With this experience comes the knowledge that we cannot just rely on the press to encourage audiences, we need to be speaking directly to them at home. So, we need to ask ourselves 'what excites your imagination?' and 'what will make you stay up until (the rather late slot of) 10:45pm every Thursday to watch the series?'. With a limited budget and no commercial ad coverage, we took to social media, our newsletters, contributors, regional art groups, universities and galleries we know to help spread the word. 

Social media was certainly vital: we were overwhelmed to see how people took to social media to express their appreciation and share information. We were naturally delighted with how many viewers contacted us via email and Facebook to tell us they enjoyed the films. That's what makes it all worthwhile. If you enjoyed the series, please do contact us and ITV at this address and share your thoughts:

ITV Studios
2 Waterhouse Square
140 Holborn London EC1N 2AE  

And, finally, some good news to end on: a new season is on the way in 2019. 


Monday, 11 June 2018

EOS TOUR AUSTRALIA – NEW ZEALAND: 14 days – 12 cities – 41 interviews – 16 Q&As

EXHIBITION ON SCREEN tour of Australia and New Zealand.  14 days – 12 cities – 41 interviews – 16 Q&As – and not enough sleep. That just about sums up a trip I have just completed to the other side of the world to help launch the new season of EOS films – commencing with DAVID HOCKNEY AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY.  

We have been in both countries since the start and have built up a loyal audience but every year something changes – not least the increased competition.  In just a few years, event cinema has grown in its offering of theatre, opera and ballet. And we too in the arts have a rival by the name of Artbeats – headed by a friend of mine based in Italy.  I’m delighted from the point of view of the ordinary person in Australia and New Zealand – indeed any country anywhere – as there is no shortage of great cultural events
and films to go see now in your local cinema.  

From the point of view of EOS alone, it’s tough as who has the time or money to go twice, three times, a week to the cinema.  So we have to fight for your attention: we have to make great films first and foremost and then we have to make them known to you – time, date and place… And encourage you to buy your seats and go see them.  Trust me, it’s not easy.  Hence my trip. It was full on until about 1am every night and up again around 5 or 6am but it was thoroughly worthwhile. I have done such tours three or four times and so have some previous contacts but still I was surprised by how much press we got and how extraordinarily positive it all was.  Even after 7 years, you still get the ‘so tell me what EXHIBITION ON SCREEN is’ questions but much more was about Hockney and our other upcoming films on CANALETTO, CEZANNE, VAN GOGH (an encore of A NEW WAY OF SEEING) and I, CLAUDE MONET.  

I also found the audiences in both countries to be extremely attentive, encouraging and supportive.  The questions after the films were sometimes pretty hard (!) but always gracious and energised by a film they had thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I must be honest: the response to Hockney was so strong it took me by surprise.  It’s, in some ways, a relatively simple film – two exhibitions and three interviews – compared to other more complex films we make but people – you – loved it to bits.  The credit lies with Hockney of course – he and his art are so full of creativity, insight and humour.  To hear the laughter night after night in different (superb) cinemas from Perth on the west coast of Australia all the way east to Auckland in New Zealand was a great boost for me – and my team.  

And all those wonderful press reviews might have been a bit late to ensure the audiences we needed for Hockney but I hope they ripple positively for the next film in the EXHIBITION ON SCREEN schedule which is CANALETTO AND THE ART OF VENICE FROM THE QUEEN’S GALLERY, BUCKINGHAM PALACE which deserves an award for the longest title ever, if nothing else.  Enjoy!

The Sunday Times, Perth 

Monday, 9 April 2018

From New York to West Palm Beach and many stops in between...

OK, America, it has to be said that you still don’t know what good coffee is (in hotels at least) nor bacon nor apples (import them from Britain please!) and a barely audible ‘uh-huh’ is not how to respond when someone says ‘thank you’ but there are so many things I love about this wonderful country that I always enjoy my trips here. Luckily some of those things are in the worlds I inhabit on my visits – namely art museums, cinemas and, when I get the time, running.  Many countries have great galleries but no country has so many in so many cities…I have just visited a few in New York, Washington, Richmond & West Palm Beach.  But that hardly scratches the surface: think LA, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Toledo, MoMA, Met, LACMA, the Getty and so many more.  Yes, it’s largely down to historic economic power that these collections have come to be but that’s no different to anywhere else and no worse than through historic military power which helped create so many of the European collections. 

So, a few days in the USA – and visiting as many galleries as I can. Plus a few screenings of both an encore film I, CLAUDE MONET as well as a new release CÉZANNE – PORTRAITS OF A LIFE. Plus a bit of research for a film we have in production which is yet to be announced (stay tuned)! Plus various other meetings…  A busy few days indeed.  What made it great fun though was the daily visit to a different cinema to introduce a film and then take questions afterwards.  I have been visiting American independent cinemas for 15 years and they just get better and better but above all it’s the audiences I like. They are always so enthusiastic, interested and gracious. There are many Americas – just as with any country – and one has to distinguish between the rather two-dimensional America that might be presented on the nightly news from the multi-faceted one you’ll meet for yourself.  It’s a huge country and, like English churches, there are way too many cinemas for one person to ever visit in one lifetime, but the response EXHIBITION ON SCREEN has had this week has been fantastic across the board and will keep me coming back. You can’t help but be encouraged by such an enthusiastic response.

The third aspect I really enjoy in the USA, on a personal level, is a simple one: running.  On this visit I have run along the Hudson in NY, the C&O canal and Potomac in DC, the James in Richmond, the Atlantic Ocean in West Palm Beach – it’s a great way to explore. But watch out for the police guarding President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach – I am not sure what they thought a sweaty runner could do but they didn’t want to take the risk of finding out, that’s for sure.  Despite that, and although ten days is a long time to be out of the office, I look forward to coming back soon

Monday, 12 March 2018

BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND | Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing

Hello everyone, including new followers of EXHIBITION ON SCREEN in Korea, Japan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan….

I have just been to a screening of VINCENT VAN GOGH: A NEW WAY OF SEEING.  It was in a gorgeous cinema with fantastic sound. The screen was huge, there were 300 people attending, the seats were great, the audio perfect, even the coffee was tasty. How fortunate we are indeed that cinemas have become so wonderful and that, of course, the scheduling of films is so much more varied that EXHIBITION ON SCREEN is now being seen in 61 countries.   But not only art, there is wonderful theatre, opera and ballet too. This simply didn’t exist like this ten years ago.

VINCENT VAN GOGH: A NEW WAY OF SEEING was first released in 2016 and has become one of our most popular films.  We have had so many requests to repeat it that it is coming out afresh in just over one week (from 20th March).  It is one of two special encores in the current season. (The other is I,CLAUDE MONET – being re-released in May). As I watched it, I have to admit to feeling enormous pride. These films are of course a team effort but, above all, I wish to express my continued admiration for the film’s extraordinary director David Bickerstaff.  Maybe it is somewhat boastful to express this but it is a staggeringly good film.  I try to watch any and every art film made by anyone and anywhere and David’s film is as good as any I have seen.   To pull out just one detail: how on earth did he know that the actor (usually beardless) Jamie de Courcey would not only look so astoundingly like Van Gogh but also be such a brilliant actor. 

EOS Vincent van Gogh © Seventh Art Productions & Annelies van der Vegt

The starting point for this film was us being informed that the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was going to re-hang its entire collection.  That doesn’t happen often in any gallery and hadn’t happened at the VGM for many years. For us, it seemed an ideal moment to look afresh at the character of Vincent van Gogh.  There have been no shortage of books and films about “the world’s favourite artist” but, let’s be honest, they do frequently concentrate a little too much on the extremes of his character – and seem to leave one with a sense that they drank too much, visited too many brothels and so on. They offer up a troubled, almost lunatic mind that painted as he did almost by accident.  Well, I don’t believe any artist paints in any way at all by accident. We wanted our film to explore where this artist actually came from and how he learnt his craft.

Luckily for us, we were helped in this quest by a superlative ‘cast list’ from the Van Gogh museum itself.  How impressive are the Van Gogh curators!  And bear in mind they are almost all speaking a second language. We always love to tap into extensive knowledge but when it is allied with real enthusiasm and articulacy you can’t go wrong.

EOS Vincent van Gogh © Seventh Art Productions & Annelies van der Vegt

As I sat in my comfy cinema chair I admit to being proud of many other aspects too: I thought the score by our long-term collaborator Asa Bennett was 100% spot on – and getting the emotional tone of a musical score just right is very hard. I thought the cinematography was superb, the editing faultless, the post-production work (by Storm in London) really great. I also knew about all the behind-the-scenes efforts – clearing the rights to use paintings, finding the sets and costumes, making sure every single caption was correct, researching and researching again the life story, overseeing the finances, so on and so forth. I know it’s wrong to boast but we always set out to make films that have long term, legacy value – and in the crowded arena of Van Gogh films I think we did just that.  You’ll have to decide for yourself but, for my part, now that we have made 19 EOS films, I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps this is the best one so far.  

One final thought: We will be announcing the lineup for our next season of EOS very soon - keep updated with our newsletter and social media for the big reveal.  I already look forward to sitting in a cinema somewhere and enjoying it with you, my fellow art-lovers. 

#EOSSeasonSix #ComingSoon

Monday, 15 January 2018

Cézanne - Portraits of a Life

It’s a pattern that repeats itself – every time I finish a film I think ‘now that really is the greatest artist that ever lived!’.   I know, deep down, it’s a ridiculous thought to have as how can one really compare Leonardo to Vermeer or Rembrandt to Hopper?  But, just before Christmas as we signed off on our film about Cézanne, there was that feeling again.  Judge for yourselves in the weeks ahead when the film reaches a cinema near you (hopefully) but, for me personally, as the months of film-making progressed, I grew and grew in admiration of the man and his art.   Towards the end of his life he wrote the following words:

 ‘My age and my health will never allow me to realise the artistic dream I have pursued all my life. But I shall always be grateful to the audience of intelligent art lovers who have sensed what I was trying to do to renew my art, in spite of my halting attempts…In my opinion, one does not replace the past, one only adds a new link. With painter’s temperament and an artistic ideal, that is to say a conception of nature, there should be sufficient means of expression to be intelligible to the general public and to occupy a suitable rank in the history of art’.

I think it is fair to say Cézanne now occupies that ‘suitable rank’. Maybe one can’t claim him as the greatest but certainly among the greats.  For me, this film started a couple of years ago when I heard that London’s National Portrait Gallery was planning an exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits – something actually no-one had ever done (bar one similar exhibition by his dealer shortly after Cézanne’s death).   I went to see the gallery and they told me that this was to be a three-gallery co-operation with the Museé d’Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  The next step was to talk to the curators – what was the plan for the show, what was the thesis?  Then we had to decide what is the story of our film? 

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky at Portraits de Cézanne exhibition ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

The decision having been made to make the film I set about the research in earnest. Here I declare a healthy dose of good fortune.  The author Alex Danchev had only recently written both a new biography and a new translation of many of Cézanne’s letters.  Those of you who have read my earlier blogs will know I always try to start a new biographical film in what I consider the obvious place - the artist’s correspondence. That’s exactly what I did here – and, as ever, the man that emerges differs from the preconceptions that we have built up previously.  In the course of making films about other artists of this period I think I had accumulated superficial ideas concerning Cézanne and his ill-tempered nature, his poor personal presentation, his reclusiveness in Provence.  Even though I had made a short film about him back in the 90s I admit to still having had those attitudes towards Cézanne.  Until I read the letters, until I read the new biography, until I spoke to the curators and until I saw the plans and pictures for the exhibition.   Then I realised there was, of course, so much more to this man.

Aix, 3 August 1906I get up early and it’s only really between five and eight that I can lead my own life. By the time the heat becomes stupefying, and saps the brain so much that I can’t even think of painting.
I caught bronchitis, I’ve abandoned homeopathy for old-fashioned mixed syrups.It’s a shame that I can’t give many demonstrations of my ideas and sensations, long live the Goncourts, Pissarro, and all those who have a propensity for colour, which represents light and air.
I know that with the terrible heat you and maman will be tired; so its good thing that you were both able to get back to Paris in time to find yourselves in a less burning atmosphere.I must remind you not to forget the slippers, the ones I have are just about giving up on me.

Having looked much deeper into who was Paul Cézanne and then having looked closely at the forthcoming exhibition and accompanying catalogue, the next stage was to decide how best to make a film for the cinema.  I knew instinctively that mood was going to be vital so one of my first calls was to composer Asa Bennett to discuss a score that would give me the dramatic and emotional bed that the film would need.  Doing this early helps as, with luck, one gets early drafts to listen to when on location researching and shooting.  I decided we needed to do a little bit of shooting in Paris – especially if we could secure interviews with Orsay’s curator Xavier Rey (who has now moved on to Marseille) and the museum’s director Laurence des Cars (who is extremely busy of course). We got both and, my word, they were great.  The key filming of the exhibition was to be London – and the National Portrait Gallery were fantastic to work with.   We had three long days and nights there and the privilege of filming paintings like these never wanes.  In a way, though, the key shoot was in and around Aix-en-Provence.   David Bickerstaff flew down to help me with the filming and we spent a good few days capturing what we felt we needed of the town, Cézanne’s homes and studios as well as the surrounding countryside.  If you know anything about Cézanne you’ll know that his heart and soul lay in the forests and hills around his hometown.  That is where he and his good friend Emile Zola spent their childhood – and it is where he was always happiest.  It entailed a few pre-dawn starts and after-dusk finishes for the filming but we captured some gorgeous material – to be honest, it’s not hard. A particular thrill though was filming a dawn time-lapse while standing on the dam that Emile Zola’s father had built.

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky filming Monique at Mont Saint-Victoire ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

All this footage we took back into the edit – and there the fun began.  How long do we hold on a painting? How many letters do we quote from? How much of the interviews do we use? And so on.  But Clive Mattock (the editor) and I quickly found our feet and something about this film just clicked from an early stage.  I’d been worried when I commenced the project that somehow there wouldn’t be enough meat on the bone – how foolish I was to think that even for a moment. It has been invigorating to have been Cézanne’s companion for the past year – and his art has revealed to me a previously unrealised depth and brilliance.  I think it’s one of the best EXHIBITION ON SCREEN’s we’ve done and, yes, right now he’s unquestionably one of the greatest artists I know.


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Vancouver at the Vancouver International Film Festival

The last time I checked there were over a thousand film festivals a year – so that’s three a day.  No doubt that figure is increasing all the time.  So how and why does a filmmaker attend a festival? In my time, I have been to plenty all around the world – all are distinctive for one reason or another, and some are certainly more useful than others as far as distributing one’s new film is concerned.  One thing they do share is that they are a great place to see great films that you almost certainly will never otherwise have seen.

I know how hard it is to raise the funds to make decent films so I am always taken aback by how many good films do get made.  So, comment no.1 would be if your city has a festival, go every day and see as many films as possible.

As someone who adores documentaries I love going to festivals just to watch films. However, I simply don’t have time so I have to choose really carefully.  So, some will go to a festival to try and pick up distribution.  Festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Cannes are full of new work looking for a home with someone who will bring them to the world. As we distribute our own films, that’s not relevant to me.  Plus I’m personally no fan of those hugely busy events where everyone is just a little bit too concerned about how they look and who’s there to notice.

Another reason to enter a festival to present your film for the first time to a paying audience and see what they think.  That is certainly one of the reasons I love Vancouver - the crowds are enthusiastic, informed and (it’s that Canadian thing!) very nice!  Reason no.3 is to pick up early reviews.  This is actually pretty important – you need reviews for the poster, the social media campaign and so on.  The one great thing about films is that they get far more reviews than anything you’ll do for TV or digital. Reason no.4 might be to pick up an award.  We’ve won plenty and I’ve no idea whether it has made much difference but it’s still nice.  Our new Hockney film picked up an Audience Award in its first screening and that was a great boost to us all.

Reason no.5 is festivals can be great fun. Again, Vancouver is my absolute favourite festival partly for that reason – they do everything right and look after us film-makers really well.  So, for example, instead of one big dinner for all the filmmakers that can be uncomfortable if you don’t know anyone and no-one has the sense to make introductions, Vancouver does small intimate lunches of 6-8 filmmakers each day. Much better and much more valuable.  Reason no.6: it can take you to some great cities – I still regret turning down festivals in Tehran, Kathmandu, Tallinn, Skopje, Busan, Kiev, Doha, and plenty more.  On the other hand, I’ve been to plenty of others and had a great time.

But I’ll come back to the reason that I think we all need to remember: there is no better place to see a film than in a cinema.  Most of the films I have seen this week in Vancouver have been excellent and, if I had seen them at all, it would almost certainly have been on my laptop. Please, I encourage you to buy my DVDs and download my films BUT the best place to see any film is in the cinema. Yesterday, I watched my own film David Hockney at the RA on a huge gorgeous screen at the VanCity Cinema in Vancouver – the quality of the sound and picture was out of this world.

That was a tough project for various reasons but yesterday all that was forgotten and it brought a tear to my eye.
Art Makes Us indeed.