Interview: Phil Grabsky

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Film-maker Phil Grabsky has a CV which would put many better-known directors to shame. Incredibly, all of his work consists of documentaries, mostly in the field, of arts, history and biography. Despite having three new works in production, he took some time out to chat to Glam prior to his visit to Australia this week.

I’ve been making documentaries for over 30 years now. I actually made my first doco at film school and subsequently sold it to television. Then I was asked to make another doco for tv and had to form a company to do that…so basically, straight out of college I became an independent producer and director. And frankly, I’ve never wanted to do anything else! Any film you make is about storytelling. 

Grabsky is particularly known for his series Exhibition on Screen. These films look at particular artists, mostly based around a specific exhibition, which could be at any gallery around the world. These works have been surprisingly successful.

Exhibition on Screen started in 2009, and the truth of the matter is, we risked the entire company to go with our feeling that there is an international audience for these types of films. And despite people thinking that we were mad, we were going to prove them wrong.

This coincided with the general development of “event cinema” from places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, National Theatre Live and so forth. They all became extremely popular.

I’ve just finished my 19th Exhibition on Screen. And in these films, the particular exhibition is a springboard for a fresh look at that artist.

The latest in the series to open in Australia is David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts, and revolves around two exhibitions: A Bigger Picture from 2012 and 82 Portraits and One Still-life from 2016.

A Bigger Picture features a range of landscape works from the period when Hockney returned from his home in California, to spend several months back in his birthplace of Yorkshire. The older artist revisits the places of his child-hood and youth, expressing himself on canvas, iPad and film.  82 Portraits is considered to be one work. Each of his subjects sat for only three days: a very short time for a portrait. They were each posed on the same platform, sitting in the same chair, thus emphasizing the individual differences in shoes, posture, facial expression and so forth.  Subjects for these portraits included friends, colleagues, art collectors, the children of friends, and even Hockney’s long-term muse, Celia Birtwell.

Grabsky allows his camera to linger over certain works, so that, as audience members, we don’t feel rushed.  This is a deliberate choice.

One of the things I’ve learnt is that when you look at a painting, for the first 15-20 seconds, your eye is being controlled by the artist. After that time you start to look again, and you start to make your own decisions. So sometimes, in the films, we will leave a painting up on the screen for 30 seconds. And then we introduce the curator or a historian to talk about it. We’re keeping the audience engaged. Not lecturing them but answering the questions that they have formed in their own minds. I’m trying to encourage people to look.

Luckily, Hockney himself is still alive and as articulate as ever, so much of this film sees the artist talking about his own work, along with curators, historians and other commentators.

This is a work for lovers of Hockney, of art in general and of good documentaries. It is an astonishingly engaging piece of film.

Phil Grabsky will be attending the premiere of David Hockney at the Royal Academy, and participating in a Q & A after the screening, this Saturday 5th May at Palace Nova Eastend at 6.15pm.

This one is sure to sell-out, so grab your tickets now.

Read more about the film here.

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Tracey Korsten is a freelance writer, poet, speaker and performer, based in Adelaide. She blogs at middleagedlove.

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