Making you see Vincent van Gogh's story in a new light

Updated: Jan 05, 2017, 13:57 IST | Benita Fernando

Before heading to NCPA to watch a film on the post-Impressionist painter, meet Phil Grabsky, the man who captures the lives of great artists on screen


Jamie de Courcey as the noted artist in Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing. PIC/Seventh Art Productions & Annelies van der Vegt

If Lust for Life — the 1956 biopic adapted from Irving Stone's novel — made you fall in love with a mad genius, then Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing will make you admire an astute artist. Was van Gogh an incidental painter, a mere creation of his bipolar disorder? Perhaps not, hypothesises this new documentary, directed by David Bickerstaff and produced by Seventh Art Productions. Busting myths about the artist, the film explores one of van Gogh's times of solace and most creative periods, ironically when he committed himself to the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy, France.


Director David Bickerstaff (right) helps de Courcey into costume

The film will be screened on December 13, at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). Try not to sigh too loudly as you see British actor Jamie de Courcey take on the garb of the red-haired artist and move to words recalled from the memorable letters exchanged between van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo. More importantly, it brings to screen the collection of Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, which revised its curation and exhibition design to create a new history of the artist. With inputs from curators, the museum's director and the artist's great-grand-nephew, here is a van Gogh universe in a nutshell.


Phil Grabsky. Pic/Bipin Kokate

The film is part of a series called Exhibition On Screen, an offering from Seventh Arts that has helped enrich arts programming across the world. If you have followed NCPA's schedule religiously, you would have spotted Exhibition On Screen slotted routinely. On Monday and Tuesday, audiences will be treated to Leonardo (from the National Gallery, London) and two more Seventh Arts productions titled In Search of Beethoven and In Search of Chopin.

Ahead of the screenings, we meet director and producer Phil Grabsky, who founded Seventh Art in 1986. He understands that making successful cinema has got more to do with just the plot, he is in town to understand sub-distribution in the country.

The art story
With over 30 years of experience in documentary filmmaking, Grabsky has released four seasons of Exhibition On Screen with works dedicated to Rembrandt, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet, among others. What does it take to make absorbing cinema out of a gallery or museum exhibition? "We are very aware that this is cinema and it's all about storytelling," says Grabsky, adding that he managed to catch an SRK thriller, Fan, on his flight here. "I don't distinguish between documentary and fiction," he continues.

The films are as ambitious as the exhibitions they take on from. The Curious World of Heironymous Bosch, for instance, another Exhibition On Screen, started with a chance interaction between the communications person from the Noordbrabants Museum in 's-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands. "I was told that this would be the largest Bosch retrospective, the kind that would never happen again. I straightaway knew we had to do it," he recalls.


Chopin’s Pleyel Piano at Nohant. PICS/Seventh Art Productions

The first step for Grabsky's art stories is to ask: What's the story the exhibition is going to tell? "What is the curators' intention? They are called 'curators' for a reason – they are not bringing random paintings. So, we consider very carefully what their story is," he says. Exhibition On Screen is not limited, however, to the gallery's or the museum's curation. "With the Bosch retrospective, The Garden of Earthly Delights did not leave Madrid's Museo del Prado for the show in The Netherlands. But, we thought it was important to be included in the film. The exhibition is the springboard for the film. And, often, our storytelling, while it has multiple levels, does not overcomplicate," he says.

On the lookout
Bosch, says Grabsky was a bit of a risk; Monet and Michelangelo, on the other hand were sure to find a larger audience. "In the ideal world, Exhibition On Screen would be a brand people trusted and, in Mumbai, the next season would be sold out. But, that is not at all how it works and people still choose on the basis of a name," he continues, adding that every film costs approximately 4,00,000 USD to make.


The gardens of Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, in Giverny

While Exhibition On Screen has brought many a Master to the screen, when it comes to contemporary artists, it's "a tough decision". Will the international audience be interested in a Damien Hirst or a Tracey Emin? "We have to ask ourselves if artists have achieved a status of a Rembrandt or a Goya," he says, indicating that a film on David Hockney — an influential figure of the 1960s pop art movement — is nearly ready. Hockney had two major exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 2012 and 2016, both of which were filmed by Seventh Arts (Grabsky calls this film, like others, "long-term projects).

Also in the works are documentaries on artists from Mexico and, perhaps, China. On the walls of the plush Worli hotel's lobby we are at, hangs a canvas by SH Raza. Pointing to it, we ask Grabsky if the Indian Modernist movement has caught his fancy yet? It's a question, as it turns out, the filmmaker is interested in posing to Mumbaikars. Care for a Souza or a Padamsee on film?

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