Masters at the movies The Impressionists
Oof the pleasures of working in an art museum is the opportunity to see an exhibition come together, from its inception to its public opening. Most visitors to museums never get to see behind the scenes, tour the collections areas, or watch an exhibit being mounted. Films such as documentarian Phil Grabsky’s The Impressionists, part of Seventh Art Productions’ Exhibition on Screen series, remedy this, bringing art to the masses by way of the big screen and giving people a chance to see masterworks of art in venues they may never get to see in person. “Most people can’t get to these huge exhibitions, which are incredibly expensive to put on, and that might not happen again ever,” Grabsky told Pasatiempo. “These are extraordinary events. We try to film them in such a way that we take you there as best we can.”
The idea behind the series is to approximate the experience of a live museum visit, and if The Impressionists is any indication, in some ways a film can be just as enriching. Interviews with art historians, curators, and other museum professionals provide scope and depth to the images: paintings by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, and other artists. And the camera lingers over the artworks, capturing details the naked eye — viewing the art from a distance and perhaps from behind a barrier — might miss.
The film focuses on the exhibit Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting which premiered in January 2015 at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, then traveled to London’s National Gallery, and then to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its only U.S. venue. Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) was a French dealer and promoter who championed the Impressionists, establishing markets for them in London and New York.
The Impressionists is the first film from the Exhibition on Screen series’ second season and opens at the Center for Contemporary Arts on Saturday, Nov. 14. Grabsky’s groundbreaking Leonardo Live, from the series’ premiere season, screened in Santa Fe in 2012. “That was the first one that we did,” Grabsky said. “The only way that we could persuade cinemas, at that time, with that first one was to do it live. Everyone thought these things needed to be live and I said, ‘It doesn’t need to be live.’ You know, people don’t seek the same community experience, as far as the actual
These artists have the most fantastic stories: both the individual stories of the period, and the stories of the artworks. — documentarian Phil Grabsky
art is concerned, in the same way as they do for theater or opera. The rest of the films have not been live.”
Other films in the series follow The Impressionists, beginning with Grabsky’s Girl With a Pearl Earring on Saturday, Nov. 21, and Sunday, Nov. 22. There are nine films in all, and eight of them are screening at the Center For Contemporary Arts between now and early next year. The last documentary, Matisse, opens on New Year’s Day.
Grabsky has spent the past two decades focusing on documentaries about artists and great composers including upcoming releases on composer Frédéric Chopin and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes for the BBC. In his films he weaves together biography and historical context to tell a story. “In the cinema, it’s all about storytelling, whether it’s the multimillion dollar Spectre or a much more modest documentary. These artists have the most fantastic stories: both the individual stories of the period, and the stories of the artworks. I’m fascinated by the context, by the biography. It’s not enough to show the paintings of Matisse or van Gogh. If you don’t know, for example, the financial context in which they’re working, you can’t possibly understand why they’re painting and who they’re painting for.”
In The Impressionists, Grabsky explores the question of why so much Impressionist art came to America, evidenced by extensive collections in museums across the country. “There’s a mix of historical moments all coming together,” he said. “It was significant that you suddenly had first-class accommodations on liners crossing the Atlantic. It was significant that the American customs waived tax on imports of paintings. It was significant that nobody in Paris wanted to buy this stuff so you had dealers like Durand-Ruel with hundreds and hundreds of paintings that nobody wanted. Post-American Civil War, these industrialists — and this gets interesting — actually decide to spend their money on art. Unlike Europe, wealthy Americans were much more open to the Impressionists and bought a lot of them. But van Gogh, because he was too radical even for the dealers, most of his paintings ended up staying in his family upon his death. That’s why a huge amount are in the Van Gogh Museum, because they were given as a bequest. They’re not scattered around the globe like the Impressionists.”
Seventh Art Productions just completed a film on Renoir. In early October, a group of citizens who dislike the painter’s work picketed an exhibit outside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, sparking debate. “There have been times when he’s been America’s favorite artist, and he was, with Cézanne, the most influential artist on Matisse and Picasso, those two giants of the 20th century. So you can’t just dismiss him,” said Grabsky, who is an author as well as filmmaker. He has published four history books including The Great Artists: From Giotto to Turner (Faber & Faber) in 2001, co-authored with art historian Tim Marlow.
Exhibition on Screen titles have screened in 42 countries, designed to appeal to broad audiences. “We make these films for people who know nothing and for people who know a lot. Each film in season two has a different approach, a different style to it,” he said. “One of them has some reenactment. One of them has some animation. But they do all have this same key element: showing you the institution from behind the scenes. If I can walk around the exhibition, just me and the curator or me and the director, that’s a very privileged moment. That’s what we share in the film.”