Renoir - Revered & Reviled: conversation with director Phil Grabsky

The latest instalment of EXHIBITION ON SCREEN, dedicated to French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir arrives in cinemas on 16th February. We talked with filmmaker Phil Grabsky about his love for art and what inspired him to make a film about Renoir at The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.

When was EXHIBITION ON SCREEN established? 
The first film was Leonardo Live from the National Gallery, London in 2011. That took two years to prepare. Since then we have made eleven more films.  The series is unique in the world and each film takes about 12-18 months to make.
They are films people will want to watch in ten years' time...proper cinema films that not only show you the world's greatest exhibitions but also go behind the scenes into the world's biggest galleries and provide a biography of extraordinary artists.

What inspired you to start EXHIBITION ON SCREEN?
I love art, I love the stories of artists, I love filmmaking.  I also believe to the bottom of my heart that we have to use the power of filmmaking to show what we, as humans, are capable of and not only gunfights, car crashes and so on. Everyone, no matter who you are or what you do or where you live, can and should enjoy the wonders of great art.

What are the challenges you face making the series?
We face the same challenges that any filmmaker faces: funding, distribution, story-telling, editing etc. My company 7th Art Productions have been a provider of arts films for a long time and know the world's galleries so, for us, access is thankfully something we are granted.
The key is to provide the audience with a great experience in the cinema regardless of where they live - we are now in more than forty countries and growing, especially in my favourite part of the world: Asia.  

The next film in the series Renoir - Revered and Reviled was filmed at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, who house the world's largest Renoir collection. How did you come to work with them?
Actually they came to us. They had seen EXHIBITION ON SCREEN and wanted us to explore making a film with or about them. They were thinking maybe Cézanne (who is certainly one of my favourites) but when I started looking at the galleries, I decided it was Renoir who demanded the film right now.

What do you think is unique about The Barnes Foundation's collection?
It is extraordinary. It is also unique: you can see a photo of a wall in any of its rooms and you know immediately it’s The Barnes. It is arguably the greatest single collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works including Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir and many more. 
It’s uneven too: 180 Renoirs on show and one Monet. But that’s what is also so interesting - the man who lay behind it – Albert C. Barnes.  Those that saw my film on the Impressionists recently will remember the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and how he almost went bankrupt championing the impressionists. Well, it was dealers like him that Barnes – after he made his fortune – went to for European art. In the process, he created one of the world’s greatest collections. Plus it will never travel. No picture will ever be seen in another gallery’s exhibition. So you have to go there – or, of course, see the film.

Do you think viewers will be surprised by the portrait of Renoir presented in the film?
I am fascinated by artists – and especially at the moment the Impressionists. I love reading their letters and biographies. I’m often asked if people will be ‘surprised’ by my films. The truth is that we all, very often, simply don’t know very much. That’s my job then - to thoroughly research, to travel, to interview, to film and to distill the key information into an entertaining and informative 90 minute film.
So yes, people will be ‘surprised’ by how much they learn about Renoir and his world.  The biggest surprise may indeed be the shift in the 1880s away from impressionism – which he felt was a dead end – to what we call his Late Works.  Radically different in many ways and an absolutely key moment in the history of art.

Which side of the film's debate do you fall on? Do you revere or revile Renoir...
The man was a genius.  But every film we make is about a genius, a creative giant – that’s what makes EXHIBITION ON SCREEN so rewarding creatively.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Phil Grabsky is the mind behind EXHIBITION ON SCREEN, a series of documentaries about artists and museums that has now shown in cinemas all over the world. 

See Exhibition on Screen 2015-16: Renoir - Revered & Reviled in Curzon Cinemas from 16th February.