by Dov Kornits

I understand that you grew up in Australia. Can you tell us about that, and was it here that you caught the art/film bug?

My parents were both British and immigrated to Australia in the 1950s where they ended up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne – just up the road from where they filmed Neighbours. My mother was a proud Welsh woman who used to pin Welsh language poems to the refrigerator with koala magnets, but both my parents loved going to the theatre. My dad became a highly respected director and actor on the lively Melbourne amateur dramatic scene, so I guess this is where I got the creative bug. At high school, I had an ambition to be an actor and go to drama school, but I was encouraged by a really inspiring art teacher to pursue a degree in fine art, which I did. This was in the late seventies and the boundaries between art and performance were being blurred and mediated in so many different ways. I found this all very exciting. I was painting and drawing while devising art performances and working as a professional actor in various TV and film productions.

David Bickerstaff

What was it that drew you to filmmaking about art?

I left Australia in the late eighties to travel around the UK and Europe. When I landed in the UK, I knew this was where I wanted to develop my career. The range of creative activities on offer, coupled with the opportunity to collaborate across disciplines was really inspiring. With Europe on my doorstep, I had access to great collections housed in some of the world’s oldest museums, which contrasted with a growing generation of radical artists pushing the boundaries across all media. I felt anything was possible.

I decided to stop acting and concentrate only on my artist practice. I found a studio in London with a group of other artists who have since became life-long friends. But I was restless and wanted to challenge myself creatively. At the time, graphic design was going through a revolution with magazines like The Face and designers like Neville Brody and Oliver Vaughan. The digital world was being born and becoming domestically accessible with small computers like the Apple Classic and I really wanted to break out of the analogue painting world and experiment with code, graphics and emerging digital platforms.

I started making internet art and devising interactive CD-Roms that explored our relationship with imagined spaces. This led me into the museum world, who were looking at new ways of telling stories through augmented experiences and time-based media.

Of course, filmmaking became an important tool in the development of these experiences. I found myself not only making films for curated spaces but for other artists and eventually for the cinema through the Exhibition on Screen series.

What did you know about Pissarro before you started the film?

I knew very little detail about Pissarro before beginning this project. I have made several films about impressionist artists, so his name would always crop up as one of the main protagonists of the movement but my perception of him was that he was slightly on the periphery. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I went to art school, so the names of the Impressionists are always referenced as good examples of an experimental and progressive art movement that reacted against the powerful Salon establishment in pursuit of new forms of expression. I soon learnt through making this film, that Pissarro was at the heart and centre of this anarchic collective of artists. That he was a driving force behind the formation of this independent society of artists who would try different ways of exhibiting and appealing to the art buying public. He was the only one that exhibited in all eight Impressionist exhibitions and truly believed in its ethos. Pissarro was often the glue between this group of disparate personalities who had differing ideas about art, politics and commercial success.

What were the most surprising things that you learned about Pissarro during the making of the film?

I didn’t know that Pissarro was born in the Danish West Indies to French parents and remained Danish all his life, even though he was very patriotic to France. I knew he was Jewish from other films I have made on Impressionism but didn’t realise that he was agnostic and didn’t practice Judaism – yet amongst his artistic circle he was known as ‘the Jewish artist’. This proved problematic for some of his close friends like Degas and Renoir who proved to be anti-Semitic with their political views and ended their relationship with Pissarro after the controversial Dreyfus affair.

Pissarro is well-known for being an anarchist, but I came to understand that it was a deeply philosophical thing and not as we might perceive anarchism to be today. He was a deep thinker and very socially engaged with issues of the day.

Finally, I came to appreciate what an artist’s artist he really was. Pissarro was always encouraging his children (all eight of them), to express themselves through art and not to be too concerned about the greater machinations of life. He and his family were poor most of their lives but the archive images of them together show Pissarro at the centre of a connected and loving family.

I came to appreciate that Pissarro was really a master painter and great drawer, similar in skill and application to Degas and Monet. I hadn’t really appreciated that before because my main exposure to his work was through catalogues and print media but to see Pissarro’s work live is a fantastic experience.

Looking at his work through a cinema lens highlights his virtuosity and the patience he had with paint, building up the layers and then finishing them with gestural marks that gave an energy to the surface. This experience is amplified when seen on the big screen, but his work really gives you a rare insight into the language of paint and how a master works with it.

Do you tend to script before going out to film, or do you script after filming, during post-production?

For these types of documentaries, you might have a broad idea of the storyline, or a chronology of events and that might form an initial treatment, but not a fully developed script. That seems to evolve as we identify our commentators and experts and hear what they have to say in formal interviews. We always transcribe these and edit them together on paper to see if we are connecting the storylines with a balanced set of voices. If there are letters or other archival material that will move the story on or articulate cinematic moments, then we plot these into the script for voicing by an actor. The final part of the jigsaw is in the film edit where the script may change and evolve as editorial decisions are made and all the elements are before you. I don’t think a final script is fully released until the final film is completed.

Was there ever any thought to put Pissarro’s living family in the film? Do you know if they continued the painting tradition?

Pissarro had eight children of which five survived into adulthood. They were all encouraged to express themselves through art and this philosophy has been passed down to his descendants. There are quite a few family members who are practicing artists today and I am sure they have a very interesting points of view regarding their Pissarro heritage, but I decided that wasn’t part of our story this time. I wanted the focus to be firmly on Camille Pissarro, his personality and practice along with his influence on the other artists in the Impressionist group. Having said that, we have interviewed many descendants of great artists who always have revealing, personal stories to tell and would probably make a great film.

How do you work with [Exhibition on Screen founder] Phil Grabsky on these documentaries?

Phil and I have known each other for a very long time and have built up a very open and honest relationship. Along with the great team at Exhibition on Screen, Phil will discuss possible projects to film in the future and then discuss with me what I think I would find interesting to make. I am very lucky that they are constantly moving from season to season and producing new films every year. By the time I become involved with a project, Phil has usually made first contact with the museum or institution we will centre the film on and agreed their level of access and cooperation. Then it is over to me to research and find my characters. Phil is an avid reader of art books so will always recommend essential texts, but our first request is always for the exhibition catalogue or draft versions of catalogue essays. These are so helpful in understanding what the spine of the narrative is going to be.

I will always formulate the first drafts of the script and then Phil will respond with edits and suggestions. Same with the offline editing process which I like to do, and Phil will always feed back into this as well. Once we have a final cut, we send it off for our experts to review, which is always very useful. I oversee the colour grading and sound dub, and then Phil and the Exhibition on Screen team sign off the final film.

What’s coming up for you, and will you continue working in the artist documentary space?

I am lucky to say that I always seem to have several projects running at the same time – both private and commissioned. My next Exhibition on Screen film is called ‘Tokyo Stories’ and is based on the critically acclaimed exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford called ‘Tokyo: Art and Photography’. I am also working on a personal project about the Japanese performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto, who is famous for his bread performances around the world and the incredibly challenging series of performances he devised with his elderly mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the time.

My most immediate project is with French based artists Lucy and Jorge Orta who I have worked with a lot over the past 12 years, making performance films in the most amazing places – Bolivia, Argentina, Canada, Italy and France. This summer we have been invited to make a film work for ArtePollino 2022 set in the beautiful mountains of Basilicata in southern Italy.

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism is in cinemas from May 26, 2022. Find your nearest screening at exhibitiononscreen.com/find-a-screening/

 

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