Monday, 25 February 2019


Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm© The Courtauld Gallery, London

Phil's chosen painting this week is... 
 Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh

...Here's why
This is one of my favourite paintings, a picture I simply never get tired of looking at.  It is the perfect example of why some artists deserve the title of ‘great’ on the one hand and a work that carries with it so much biographical information about the artist on the other.  You could argue that any self-portrait is full of the artist’s own biography but some, like this one, are far more intimate and revealing than others.  I’m lucky – living near London – that this is a painting that I can easily visit and see for myself.  A result of Van Gogh’s meagre lifetime sales is that most of his works stayed with his family and then were gifted to what became Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum – one of the finest museums in the world. This painting, however, found its way into the possession of Père Tanguy and then some major Van Gogh exhibitions at the start of the 20th century before being bought by the redoubtable Samuel Courtauld. Hence it now resides in London’s Courtauld Gallery and is one of their many treasures.  Not only is it one of the most important paintings in the entire Courtauld collection it is clearly one of the most celebrated self-portraits in the entire history of western art.

The painting is one that Van Gogh painted around 6th January 1889, two weeks or so after the notorious quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin who was staying with him in Arles in the south of France. According to Gauguin, after supper and a big quarrel Van Gogh followed him out into the night with a razor blade. Then the two of them had another confrontation, went their separate ways and the next thing Gauguin knew the police had called him the next morning and discovered his friend and rival had gone to hospital because he lacerated part of his ear (or perhaps even his whole ear which would have been an extraordinary feat and what pain he must still have been in while painting this) and then gone to the local brothel and had given it to a prostitute apparently called Rachael. The painting itself is layered with all these investigations of self-exploration, self-revelation and self-mutilation. Those stunning vibrant green eyes seem to pierce the viewer as we confront him confronting himself. 

To the left over his shoulder is a blank canvas; it seems as if there was an image on it but then it’s been over-painted and one of the theories is that Van Gogh, in the aftermath of this mental breakdown and self-mutilation, is starting to fear his creative powers are waning.  The blank canvas, it is suggested, mirrors Van Gogh’s fear that he can no longer paint. The other painting in the background is a Japanese woodblock that he owned – and reflects the importance to Van Gogh of Japanese art.  One simply can’t fully understand Van Gogh without comprehending the impact that Japanese art had on him.  He and indeed all the artists we know by the collective name ‘impressionists’ and ‘post-impressionists’ were knocked sideways by the arrival of Japanese artworks, none more than Van Gogh. Indeed it played a significant part in his decision to go to the south of France.

Our film Van Gogh & Japan explores this remarkable and vitally important story.  Van Gogh travelled south to find his ‘Japan’ but also in search of community, creativity and inspiration. Instead he found heartache and pain.  As an artist that never shied away from depicting himself as he was, here we see him expressing his sense of anguish and crisis - and, at the same time, acknowledgement that ‘this is what I did and this is who I now am’.   Remember, this is an artist (as our other Van Gogh film ‘A New Way of Seeing’ so carefully shows) who doesn’t start painting till 1880, and doesn’t make his first major work until about 1885, then goes to Paris for two years and learns from the impressionists and then to the south of France where he begins a two year period from the beginning of 1888 to his death in the summer of 1890 in which he paints the majority of the artworks we now all recognise and admire.

Imagine: in the last 80 days of his life alone, he paints 90 pictures – among them many masterpieces.  He was an extraordinary man and artist – and I am reminded of it every time I stand before this particular painting.  But he was also a man troubled intermittently by mental anguish, driven to self-harm and, again, that too is conveyed in this, for me, great work.

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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo11

Van Gogh & Japan is in cinemas worldwide from 4 June 2019. Find out more information here

Tuesday, 5 February 2019


Portrait of Picasso, Cannes (1907 - 1977) © Lee Miller Archives, England 2016. All rights reserved. 

My chosen painting this week is... actually a photograph...
 Portrait of Picasso
(1907 - 1977) by Lee Miller 

...Here's why
Near where I live in Sussex, southern England, is a fascinating farmhouse that belonged to the photographer Lee Miller.  In directing a film about Picasso I naturally came across Miller’s work as they had a creative relationship that began in 1937 and that is worth a look.  He painted her six times and she, in turn, took over 1000 photographs of him – including one that she took on a visit to this studio in the south of France in 1958.  That photograph now resides in Edinburgh and is my choice of image this week. 

Famously, Picasso created tens of thousands of artworks - maybe 50,000 – and he was himself the subject of who knows how many thousands of photographs in his long and extraordinary life.  So what makes one photograph more powerful, more respected, than another?  There is no doubt that simply putting a well printed photograph in a nice frame and then hanging it in a gallery gives it a status irrespective almost of the inherent quality of the work.  I certainly felt that when I made a film about Hockney not so long ago that his portraits were given a remarkable lustre and status simply by the act of framing, hanging and lighting at the Royal Academy.  Outside of their frames, just tacked to the studio wall, they simply weren’t as good. That is of course no different to my films: in a gorgeous cinema they look better than on the back of an airline seat.  That said, there is something about Miller’s photograph which does draw me in.  Something draws you in even if you know nothing about the photographer or photograph.

There is, however, something to be gained by knowing more about the background though.  American photographer Lee Miller was 30 when she met Picasso (in his mid-50s) while on holiday in southern France.  Miller was with her companion, the British artist Roland Penrose (who was a champion of surrealism – something close to Picasso’s heart too of course).   1937 is a significant year: Spain was in the midst of a civil war. Picasso had responded with one of the great works of the 20th century – Guernica.   He would and could no longer return to Spain.  Instead Paris, France – where he had first visited in 1900 – was now his home.    A few years later, when the Second World War broke out, Picasso remained in his Parisian studio, even under German occupation. There he met Miller again when she arrived – as a Vogue war photographer – on August 25th, 1944, liberation day.  Miller and Picasso were now firm friends – she stayed working as a war correspondent until 1946, when she returned to the UK to marry her long-term partner Penrose.  The couple visited Picasso frequently – she to take photographs and he to research a biography of Picasso.  When Picasso bought a house in Cannes, they followed. It was there she took this picture.  Were they lovers? Well, her son Antony Penrose thinks she must have been.  Maybe that is revealed in the way he is looking at her – and, also, her him. Penrose has written: “Of course she was very beautiful, but that was not, in itself, enough for Picasso. What was important was she had this tremendous warmth of personality, she was always the person who made everyone laugh. She also had a very American quick wit - the New York one-liner, the wisecrack.”

After the war, Miller and Penrose lived in the small farmhouse which, as I have said, is not far from me in Sussex.  She seems to have been haunted by memories of the World War but was always relieved and happy when Picasso came to visit.  Antony, then a young boy, further remembers:

 “I knew he was somebody special, because he was special to me!  He was just this incredibly warm-hearted, cuddly, friendly person who loved children and animals. I had no idea who he was. My parents never made much of it.”In his photographs, Penrose summarises:

It’s two friends looking at each other. What we get is the jokey, playful, warm atmosphere that surrounded them, which is not something you hear about much.”  
Is that in this photograph?  You decide.  Personally, I really like it. 

- PG

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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo10

Young Picasso is in cinemas now. Book your tickets here!

Friday, 14 December 2018


 Plum Tree in Blossom by Camille Pissarro, 1894
This week’s painting is a gorgeous work by the French impressionist Camille Pissarro.  I’m not entirely sure why he gets less attention than many of the other impressionists like Manet and Degas – neither of whom really liked the term or felt it applied to them.  Yet if anyone deserves to be called the ‘father of impressionism’ it is Pissarro: only he showed in all eight impressionist shows.  It was he that Cézanne claimed taught them everything.  

This particular painting is at the Ordrupgaard museum near Copenhagen. Indeed Pissarro was part-Danish (having been born in the Danish Antilles to Portuguese and French parents).  Ordrupgaard is one of the thousands of wonderful galleries throughout the world that sometimes get overshadowed by the mega-museums but really should always be on any traveller’s itinerary if one is in the area.

Pissarro came to France as a foreigner and maybe always saw the landscape through the eyes of a detached but somewhat awestruck outsider and observer.  In Paris he studied the works of great painters like Millet and Corot – and landscapes were always to be his metier.  Unlike Monet who was forever travelling in search of new landscapes and cityscapes, Pissarro was comfortable to capture the location around him; the life around his own house and family.   It should be said, mind you, that money – or lack of – played a part in his decision.  I recently read Pissarro’s book ‘Letters to his son Lucien’ and one of the common themes in the near-destitution he lived in.  Once again, it is our friend Paul Durand-Ruel who pops up to offer an economic crutch to lean on.  In 1884 Pissarro and his family moved to Éragny, north-west of Paris. This painting is from the garden of his new house.  The garden is wonderfully bathed in a glittering spring light.  Pissarro is clearly entranced by the light as it skips across the flowering fruit trees.  Everything is both still and active at the same time.  Of a moment and yet timeless.

A final word about the gallery the painting now resides in.  ''I might just as well confess now rather than later that I have been rash and made substantial purchases,'' Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936) wrote to his wife, Henny, in 1916. ''I know, though, that I will be forgiven when you see what I have bought; it is all first class.''  Hansen, a wealthy Danish insurance tycoon, had just bought two landscapes by Sisley, a Monet cathedral and a portrait by Renoir and a Pissarro.  His interest may have been triggered by a 1914 show of 19th-century painting in Copenhagen that was stranded there by the outbreak of the First World War. Prices for art then dropped during the war, when Americans were absent from the European market, and Hansen made his first purchases thus in 1916. These paintings were to become part of the most important collection of 19th-century French paintings in northern Europe.  We have just finished a film entitled DEGAS – PASSION FOR PERFECTION and Hansen’s collection and Degas intertwined.  Hansen and his associates made many purchases after 1916 but one important one was to acquire the collection of a Parisian dentist, George Viau, which included more than 200 paintings notably part of (the deceased) Degas's collection and studio. They also secured three Degas works from Ambroise Vollard, among them the late pastel ''Three Dancers'' (c. 1898). Thus it is that paintings end up all around the world. Hansen’s fine collection, along with a fine group of paintings by Danish artists of Hansen's day and earlier, was given a fine home at Hansen’s large country home in the town of Ordrupgaard outside Copenhagen. After his wife's death in 1951, the house and the paintings became the state-owned Ordrupgaard Museum. 

Monday, 3 December 2018

What's coming next? Find out here!

Sunday morning and catching up.  I’m too busy to even go for a run today but with Christmas around the corner there’s a lot to get done.  Last Friday we finished YOUNG PICASSO which I think is one of the best films we’ve done.  I think we had the idea almost four years ago so it has been a long time in the making.  

I personally have learnt a huge amount about this titan of art history.   I know plenty of people actually know relatively little about Picasso’s origins – and the importance certain cities played in his development.  Too often films just list achievements without explanation: I like to know why a small child from Málaga rises to become arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century.  The 26-year-old that paints Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: where does he come from, who does he learn from, was he just plain lucky? And so on.  I hadn’t realised what a full and fascinating youth Picasso had has – and I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with the experts of the (wonderful) Picasso museums in Spain and France. 

Once again, I urge you to luxuriate in the artwork on the big screen.  My word, he is quite extraordinary from such a young age.  The film is out in February: don’t miss it.  The blue period paintings in ultra HD on the big screen are worth the price of admission alone.   Meanwhile, our film DEGAS: PASSION FOR PERFECTION is doing OK on its release.  I admit I wish we were getting the kind of numbers that theatre and opera get in the cinema but we’ll just keep plodding away. Certainly we get a lot of great reaction to the films themselves so that’s very motivating.  I don’t think Degas was very well known by even those who declare themselves lovers of the impressionist period (which frankly should be all of us!).  We’ve just had some great reviews out of France echoing that: see the Degas film in your local cinema and (re)-discover an artist you probably didn’t really know or appreciate.   France is such a tough market – cinephiles for sure but awash with films and with a preference for French-speaking (and why not?) or Hollywood.  Again, we’ll carve out our niche and keep beavering away.  

My colleague David is currently editing VAN GOGH & JAPAN and that’s going to be a cracker too.  This is a fascinating time in the world of cinema as so many are built in new territories: I was recently invited to speak at a cinema conference in Dubai and I have to say I was staggered by the money being spent on absolutely high-end cinemas (albeit often in shopping malls) across the middle east and United Arab Emirates. Billions of dollars.  It’s true that it’s Hollywood and Bollywood that are what most screens will show but I think with determination I can pop our films on the odd screen now and again!  And we have to believe art has the power to influence and change….   Enjoy your day; why not walk down to your local gallery and pop in and say hi.  Talk to us on our facebook and Instagram sites – let us know which galleries and which painters you love. 

Thursday, 22 November 2018


The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
This week I am going to quote from the book 'Great Artists' that I wrote with Tim Marlow and Philip Rance a few years ago and is now available on kindle and audible.

In spite of the ghostly appearance of the work, itself a monument to Leonardo’s desire to experiment and achieve a lasting technical perfection in fresco painting, The Last Supper still has an extraordinary presence.  It is so precisely composed and painted that it resembles a latter-day hologram flickering in and out of vision. Even today it looks as if Leonardo has managed to create another room beyond the refectory in which the work is sited. This is enhanced by the semicircular lunettes painted about The Last Supper which originally contained the Sforza coat of arms to remind all who saw it who had commissioned the work and had ruled absolutely.  

The painted vision is an elevated one: the viewer looks up in awe at a scene which, if rendered strictly according to the laws of nature, would be almost invisible since the most anyone would see would be the underside of the table. Leonardo subtly tilts it forward to reveal the drama unfolding in a deep illusionistic space. The scene centres on Christ in every way possible. Each of the disciples either has his eyes or hands pointing forwards towards their Lord and Master who has just revealed that one of them will betray him. Christ is framed by three windows behind him and seems to illuminate the table, its contents and the surrounding figures himself. The twelve figures are broken up into four groups of three, order imposed by Leonardo on an image of unprecedented expressiveness. Each figure is emotionally connected to the others in his group (with the exception of Judas who is slightly pushed forward and thereby isolated by Peter who whispers manically in the ear of John, to the immediate left of Christ as we look at it) but is, at the same time, depicted as feeling something entirely personal. It is almost as if Leonardo is producing a case study in human response to tragedy. 

In turn, the work can also be read as a diagram by the artist-scientist who was analysing the workings of sound waves and their impact. ‘Those who are nearer understand better’ scrawled Leonardo in his notes to The Last Supper and ‘those farther away hear poorly’.  The work was immediately hailed as ‘miraculous’ and ‘divine’ though it quickly began to deteriorate. But copies were made and artists as significant as Rubens and Rembrandt in the north and Caravaggio in the south, and even, much later, Andy Warhol out west, drew inspiration from the work. It remains Leonardo’s most monumental and significant artistic achievement, even as it continues to fade away.

I have been to see it in Milan – and it continues to pack a powerful punch in its original location.  But an alternative for those in or visiting London is a superb replica at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Thursday, 25 October 2018


DANSEUSE CAMBODGIENNE Auguste Rodin (1840 -1917)

I wanted this week to talk about a painting that I see at least once a day – as I have a copy in my bathroom at home.  It’s a surprising painting as normally we associate the artist Auguste Rodin with one media only – sculpture.

Born in 1840 in a poor part of Paris – the son of a clerk and his wife.  By his teens, Rodin had decided to become an artist and studied at a design school but he was hampered by his shortsightedness and was refused entry aged 17 to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts; But he persisted and started to specialize in sculpture. It took time but by his mid-40s he had established himself as one of the preeminent sculptors in the country.  His works were to include The Age of Bronze, The Kiss, The Thinker, and The Burghers of Calais.  If you don’t know his work I thoroughly recommend visiting his museums in Paris or Philadelphia – both of which are wonderful – or simply see The Burgers of Calais at the Met in New York.  (Alternatively, have a look at our Tim Marlow meets Tony Bennett – where it is one of Tony’s choices to talk about).

But a painter?  No-one thinks of Rodin as a painter.  His own art collection had 6,000 works including paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir.   He loved paintings and loved to paint.  

In July 1906, Rodin, 66, went to see the Pré-Catelan in Paris, the show given by the troupe of Cambodian dancers, who came to accompany king Sisowath of Cambodia, during his official trip to France.  Rodin was bewitched by the beauty of the dancers and even followed them to Marseilles to be able to draw them again and again until they sailed away.

A few days later his comments were reported in the newspaper The Figaro: 
"These monotonous and slow dances, which follow the rhythm of a hectic music, have an extraordinary beauty, a perfect beauty ... [They] taught me movements that I had not met anywhere yet ..."

This particular painting I find absolutely gorgeous.   A gouache of ochre for the arms and head as well as a deep blue for the dress.  There is an absence of detail but that is not missed. The curve of the wrist, the slight tilt of the neck, even the rise of the knees carry with them a grace and control that is bewitching.  The energy and control are captured by a master artist.  This is what one sees time and time again with good and great artists – the ability to say so much with so little. It’s true of film-making too: often the skill is knowing what to leave out, knowing how to summarise in a few words or images what may be a complex tale.  To entertain, inform and move.  Rodin, painter as well as sculptor, was a master.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Test before you invest... The inconsistency of printing photos!

I am an old-fashioned chap at heart – I like my photos in albums.  I have yet to really enjoy the family huddled around a lap top looking at images of my kids growing up in quite the same way as we do when it’s albums we are gazing at. Maybe it’s just how I was brought up. The downside is that it’s a huge task and, despite my best and continuing efforts, I am currently 7 years behind.  It takes ages to ingest and log photos on all the many devices we as a family have – never mind going back through more than 20,000 photos we have on-line to make sure they too are properly labelled. Then one has to choose from the thousands that accumulate in any one year and make a representative selection. I recently did just that for 2012 and totalled up more than 200 that I needed printing. 
The big question then is ‘where’? I have tried on-line, department stores, supermarkets, chemists and photography shops and only their inconsistency is consistent!  The colour black can be anywhere from light grey to coal black. Colours are all over the place and white can be, well, anything. So I decided to do a test. I chose five locations in my hometown of Brighton and sent each the same five images to print. These were the photography chain Jessops, Boots, and photography shops Zoingimage, Colourstream and ClockTowerImages. The results were frankly pretty shocking.  It may be unfair to rank them but I will tell you the best one – and it rather surprised me:  Jessops.  I went in there to ask about their gear and they said they use a dry-printing method and that helps them keep standards high and regular.  I did ask their PR department for more information on exactly what equipment they use but no response has as yet been forthcoming.  
But the conclusion is: do a test in your local area and make sure you find out who prints best before cramming your photo albums with below-par reproductions of your fine photography skills!