Exhibition on Screen are set to release, in cinemas nationwide, the new David Hockney documentary David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts: A Bigger Picture 2012 & 82 Portraits and One Still Life 2016. It focuses in on two major exhibits Hockney had at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2012 and 2016 respectively. Through interviews with Hockney himself and various talking heads from the art world, we get a glimpse into the myth that is David Hockney; his paintings, his methodology but also his affable personality.
Exhibition on Screen is a concept created by producer/ director Phil Grabsky. Grabsky set out to create films which offer a cinematic immersion into the world’s best loved art, accompanied by commentary from leading art critics and historians. It launched in 2011 and since then through his production company Seventh Art, they have released over 16 films, which have been shown over 50 countries worldwide. Covering major exhibitions which have taken place at institutions such as the National Gallery, Van Gogh Museum, Royal Academy and Tate, to name a few. Artists include Michael Angelo, Monet, Van Gogh and the upcoming Cézanne documentary of his current exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
Hockney’s 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy was focused on new landscapes which featured work exhibited on TV screens and iPads and the 2016 exhibition which was a new body work of portraits of intimate snapshots of people from LA’s art world that have crossed Hockney’s path over the past two years. The documentary proves to be a beautiful and vibrant conversation about Hockney and his work: a cheery, down to earth, relaxed figure whose Yorkshire accent shows no signs that he has spent most of his adult life in LA. A man who after 80 years is still very much in love with his art.
To tell us more about Hockney and this upcoming documentary we managed to catch up with director Phil Grabsky in central London and this is what he had to say:
It is a very interesting concept to make a film about an exhibition, specifically on an influential artist. In a way it immortalises the exhibition and also makes it accessible to everyone globally. How did this all come about?
I started out making art documentaries in television in the mid 80s. Channel 4 had just burst on to the scene. I am not sure I necessarily believe in golden ages, but to some extent it was. Because at the time you had commissioning editors at Channel 4 who were willing to do something different; they employed independent filmmakers, they believed in craft, they gave proper budgets, they believed in giving you time to work on one film at a time. It wasn’t necessarily about ratings or the lowest common denominator, which can be like that these days. So, I was up and running and suddenly found myself also writing for the BBC, ITV and by the end of the 1990s-2000s we became the biggest independent producers of art film documentaries; my production company Seven Art Productions based in Brighton.
Suddenly now there is a shift with television, there is an issue with art shows getting commissioned compared to cooking or celebrity ones. So there is a whole lot of convincing you have to do, which I really don’t get. I just came now from the Natural Portrait, specifically from the Cézanne exhibit where its completely packed out with people from all demographics. Statistically more people go to a gallery or museum than a football match, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the current state of television programming.
So after having produced numerous art documentaries and films we came up with the idea of combining audiences for cinema with audiences for art and so Exhibition on Screen was conceived. Making films within the gallery and museum space, centred around a specific exhibition and bringing it to a network cinema. Even then I had some persuading to do and that was only just 7-8 years ago. I eventually managed to persuade the Picturehouse chain to screen our first film, they put it in 41 cinemas of which 40 of them sold out. Seven years later, we are here at the Vue cinema in Leicester Square, doing a big campaign ‘This Is Not A Cinema’ where our current David Hockney film we will be screened. Also we now screen in 250 cinemas nationwide with further screenings in 55 countries worldwide.
How do you choose the artist?
As we are working with the medium of film, you are instantly all about story telling. So, we look at a major exhibition and the artist featured and then discuss if has a strong enough story to allow us to make a good documentary about them but also the artistic period they represent. Of course the artist should have some broad appeal. Like the Monet documentary we did a while back was just shown in Tereon, Mexico; a place which I know for a fact is plagued by crime and drug war fare and yet 1,000 people turned up to the screening. Monet obviously has mass appeal which has infiltrated globally and through this documentary we brought the exhibition to them.
Can you tell us the impetus behind this Hockney documentary?
Hockney is the 18th film that we made. With Exhibition On Screen we focus in on big exhibitions. So the 2012's major, hugely successful Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy; Hockney was 76 at the time and was/is considered Britain’s most popular artist, beyond Tracey Emin or Damian Hirst. It was quite obvious for us to do something on him; especially with him still being so prolific; engaging with modern technologies, not doing the same old, same old. Have you seen his drawings on iPad?
Yes, I’ve seen his use of iPad in a museum before. In the documentary, I noticed he also used LCD screens in the exhibition which I found quite hypnotic.
Yes, indeed he is very adaptable to an ever-changing art landscape. The video installations actually work best in the cinema environment than the gallery. In the cinema, the screen is against a black wall and its dark so the crystal-clear imagery jumps at you. The quality, visually has never been that good. Its staggeringly good to watch his video installations but also his artworks in the big screen, as they are just so visually arresting.
Why are there two shows involved and not just one? Like in your previous films.
With the landscape show in 2012 we didn’t feel we had enough content to release it as a stand-alone film at the end of it. So we left it there. Then we got wind the Royal Academy where inviting him back in 2016 to do a portrait show which was titled ‘82 portraits and one still life’. We managed to get talking heads like the art critic Tim Marlow but also the senior curator of the Royal Academy Edith Devaney. With the 2nd Exhibit we got on board much earlier on, so we had much more footage to work with.
In a way this documentary compared to the others is special as the artist is still very much alive.
It is very special and I felt that throughout filming. We had three interviews with him, which I think is a first. We got Tim (Marlow) interview him both in 2012 and then in 2016 and as you would expect he says pretty much the same things. In the documentary in the last line of the film, he says ‘Landscapes, still life and portraits. What else is there?’ He is all about being an artist.
With the talking heads that there is a tendency of historians and critics to impose their own thoughts on what the artists intentions are. In the documentary having such an artist alive and being able to explain his work is rather unique but Hockney seems to be rather blasé and deflective when asked about meaning behind his work.
I do think it’s important for the art world to be cautious that it’s not only talking to itself. People should be able to not be afraid to say ‘I don’t get what I am looking at’. Personally I would like an artist to explain their art to me. I find it annoying, specifically with contemporary artists; if an artist said ‘I don’t know what it means’. In the past, say for a Leonardo or Cézanne, I don’t think there were any accidents; they knew exactly what they were doing with each painting.
They meticulously studied those before them, they knew their art history thoroughly. They liked to talk about what they do and to be asked intelligent questions. I suspect that Hockney was willing to talk about his work; but didn’t want to let on that he did. Like his portrait paintings, as he explains in the interviews that each portrait was made in 3 days and that with each one there was different person, different clothes, different positions; therefore different meaning; each one an individual painting, but then Tim adds “all together, its one big piece” and that is also true.
The film marks Hockney’s 80th birthday. He seems to be still going strong. What did you learn about him personally?
What is significant about Hockney that he can easily sit alongside the Rembrandts and the Goyas. I think his work will stand the test of time. Is there anybody else within our life time that you can say that about?
Yes in the film the art critic Jonathan Jones mentions that, Hockney doesn’t have the disposability of other artists that come and go.
To be honest, I don't think some of the those YBAs (Young British Artists) of the 90s will be talked about in 100 years. What I found out about Hockney is he continues to study, innovate, he has passion and commitment to what he is doing; just to be the best of what he wants to do. I find that very inspiring and motivating. Here he is a man of 80, who still loves to paint, isn’t worried about his paintings selling, he knows his own mind, he is not bitter or bored instead nice and affable. Even despite being in LA all this time he is very much still rooted in his Yorkshire roots.
David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts: A Bigger Picture 2012 & 82 Portraits and One Still Life 2016 is released on the 21st Of November. For more details visit www.exhibitiononscreen.com
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_