Filmmaker Phil Grabsky on the enduring art of portraitist David Hockney

Filmmaker Phil Grabsky on the enduring art of portraitist David Hockney

As we near completion of our 19th feature film for EXHIBITION ON SCREEN my enthusiasm remains as great as ever for making these cinematic biographies of great artists. I simply do not tire reading their letters, visiting their locations and, of course, looking hard at their artworks. Every season has endless wonderful moments, great stories and new discoveries. For me, this 5th season is no different. The three new films and two much-requested encores all feature some of the greatest artists and art in history. Canaletto, Hockney, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Monet.

With the exception of Canaletto, one real area of focus in this season is that of the portrait artist. Sometimes seen unfavourably in comparison to still lifes or landscapes, portraiture is of course actually as powerful and important as any other branch of painting. It is so fascinating to track how artists have used portraiture and self-portraiture starting with Durer, working through Rembrandt, then the likes of Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh, right up to the modern day with a wonderful artist like Hockney. Where are the similarities, where are the differences? Has anyone revealed humanity as profoundly as Rembrandt? Who can forget the impressionist portraits that are both of the moment and for eternity?

As you’ll see in our Hockney film, the challenge for contemporary artists is to look afresh, think anew. Hockney with his 82 portraits – each painted in three days - achieved something radically different to a Cézanne, which could take over 100 sittings to approach completion of a painting. Such different styles, but both artists touch us deeply. The Cézanne exhibition has been called the ‘greatest show of the year’ and ‘ a demonstration of the greatest modern portraitist’ – high praise indeed. The Hockney show that we filmed was a phenomenal success too – the gallery was crammed full every day.

So what, you may ask, in the time of the selfie, is the appeal? What draws all ages, all demographics to the art gallery? Surely it’s that a photo on a phone may record a physical moment but it rarely reveals much at all beyond our own narcissism and voyeurism. A painting by a great artist reveals who we are. In the late 1830s artists in France thought the new arrival of photography meant their own craft was dead. They quickly realised they were wrong. Our films consistently reveal why that is – and Cézanne and Hockney – both masters – offer a glimpse of what can be achieved with paint.





Phil Grabsky
is a filmmaker who has won awards for his directing, writing, producing and cinematography.





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