TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 13: Director Bruce Beresford of "Peace, Love And Misunderstanding" poses during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival at the Guess Portrait Studio on September 13, 2011 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Bruce Beresford Investigates ‘An Improbable Collection’ at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

AFI Award winning director Bruce Beresford has a career that ducks and swerves through different genres, from the Ozploitation flick, Money Movers, to war drama, Breaker Morant, to the Best Picture winning, Driving Miss Daisy, and now to his latest documentary: An Improbable Collection.

Playing via the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, An Improbable Collection follows the works of artists Frank Brangwyn (English) and William Orpen (Irish), both of whom have extensive works from their collection based in (of all places), Mildura.

In the below interview, Bruce talks about how the collection came to be there, the importance of embracing and respecting art, and how art and artists change throughout the years.

An Improbable Collection is available to watch via the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival website.


Andrew 

You’re really digging into the art history of Australia with this and At the Coliseum Deluxe (which Bruce provided narration for).How did you come to this story?

Bruce 

I’d always collected paintings by those two painters in England, because both of them fell from favour, the paintings are very cheap. Even with my puny income, I could buy some. And I’ve got I’ve got them because nobody wanted them. Even though they were two of the most famous artists in the world at one point. Nobody wants them now. So I’ve been buying them for some years. I’ve only got to by Orpen, but I’ve got about 15 by Brangwyn. And you see then someone said to me one day in London, oh, did you know there’s a lot of Brangwyns and Orpen’s in Australia? And I said, No, where are they? And they said that in this little town called Mildura. I said No, impossible. Anyway, when I came back to Australia, I drove down to Mildura, which is a long way from Sydney. And there they are. And I tell the story in the film about this guy who collected them and nobody wanted them, and when he died, he left them to the Mildura council.

Andrew 

So much art history, just sequestered in a place that is so far away from where it began.

Bruce 

I think what’s so extraordinary is that the two of them Brangwyn, and Orpen, are two of the most famous artists. I mean, they were they weren’t just sort of mildly talented, they were literally household names.

Andrew 

The paintings that you feature in the documentary are really very stunning.

Bruce 

Oh they’re fabulous.

Andrew 

I found it very informative. And it made me a bit sad actually. One of my main passions is film criticism and discussing film history, and yet, one of the things it’s highlighted in the film is the manner that the critics of art at the time just kind of push them aside.

Bruce 

You’ve hit the nail on the head. That was one of the reasons I made the film because I was so intrigued by that. Just how famous you can be. Bang, you know?

Andrew 

What does that mean to you, as a as an artist, as a director?

Bruce 

Well, I don’t lose any sleep over it. I mean, it’s something that happens. It’d be interesting to see if either of those two painters ever make a comeback, because as I pointed out at the end of it, there’ve been other painters who have. Look at someone like Norman Lindsay. You could pick up pictures of his 20 to 25 years ago, you could get just about any Norman Lindsay picture for a few dollars. Literally a few dollars. Now they sell hundreds of 1000s of dollars. So, he came back.

Bruce 

Is it a matter of encouraging discussion about these artists?

Bruce 

I think what happens is that art movements shift, tastes change. People fall out of fashion. When I was a student, there was a big swing towards abstract pictures. And anybody who did a picture with something recognizable in it, was sort of laughed. Well, that’s changed a lot now there’s been a bit of a move back towards figurative painting.

Andrew 

I don’t know if you’ve been watching the Rachel Griffiths series, Finding the Archibald but I found that it very interesting.

Bruce 

Yes, well, they’re looking for all those pictures is quite interesting.

Andrew 

Just the curiosity of seeing so much history… not lost as such, because some of these are in people’s attics, or people’s living rooms and things like that. How do we keep this kind of history alive? How do we keep it relevant?

Bruce 

The Archibald, I’m surprised at the number of famous Archibald pictures they can’t find. I suppose they sold them off. Of course, there’s a lot of paintings. Brangwyn, and Orpen between them painted an enormous number of pictures. In London, there’s a lot of Orpen’s in the Imperial War Museum, because he was a wartime artist in the First World War for four years. They have a lot of his best pictures. Of course, that’s what they’re interested in. They just want pictures of action at the front. Brangwyn lived so long, he lived until he was 88, and was incredibly prolific.

Andrew 

I find the war imagery was so dramatic and so powerful and striking. And yet the varied different sorts paintings just carry so much different emotions and drama and life to them that I was quite impressed by how broad the emotional scope was there.

Bruce 

It’s true. There were things in the film that struck me as very funny. I mean, look, he spent seven years painting those pictures for the House of Lords, and then they rejected them.

Andrew 

Which is a real shame.

Bruce 

What a blow. But they’re there. You can see them in Swansea in Wales.

Andrew 

What’s the difference of seeing these kinds of paintings in person as opposed to a picture on your phone or the computer?

Bruce 

Of course, when you see any great art for real, it does make a tremendous impact on you. I remember when I first went to Paris and I went to the Jeu de Pamme to look at the van Gough’s… when you actually see them, it’s quite frightening. You realize that no reproduction ever really reproduces them. The actual picture is more startling. I think that’s true of the Brangywn’s and the Orpen’s too.

Andrew 

For me personally, a couple of years ago I went back to Canberra and got to see the Pollock’s Blue Poles painting. And, I’ve watched documentaries on it and read so much about and have seen pictures of it, but then seeing it in person… it’s overwhelming. As you’re saying, you’ve got a couple in your home, what does that do to you as somebody living with such powerful art?

Bruce 

Lots of people got pictures in their home. It’s not as if I’ve spent a fortune buying these pictures. Remember, these were pictures nobody wanted. I didn’t spend a lot of money on them. The investments been incredibly modest.

Andrew 

But it’s less about the investment and more about the art itself, isn’t it? How you feel about it.

Bruce 

I love having those pictures. We’ve also got a flat in London where some of the best pictures are there, and I find when I’m away, I really miss them. I’ve only got pictures in the house that I love to live with. In the room, I’m talking to you now, there’s a lot here. And the living room at the back the house is full of them. I’ve never had the money to spend a lot of money on art. I’ve never made that much money. So it’s all been fairly modest. And I’ve been lucky, I suppose that I stumbled across Brangwyn and Orpen when they were out of fashion. I got them cheap. Well, they’re still out of fashion.

Bruce 

Do you have to register that you’ve got them anywhere? Do you have to notify somebody that you’ve got them? There’s no catalog or anything?

Bruce 

No, there’s a lot of books about Brangwyn. There’s only one ever published after 1935. All the books that I’ve got on Brangwyn, huge books, they’re all mostly from the 20s and up to 35. And after that, there’s none.

Andrew 

And then and then we’ve got this collection in Mildura.

Bruce 

The collection in Mildura they have a lot of pictures. Because that guy Elliot, really, really went to town buying them.

Andrew 

Is that a permanent collection? Is that are they always up there?

Bruce 

Yes. They’re not always all on display, but they frequently are. Because actually, in Mildura, they haven’t got much else. The Brangwyn’s and the Orpen’s, that’s really what their collection is.

Andrew 

As you were saying before, there was a bit of a surprise in your voice when you were saying out of all places, Mildura has these paintings. In the middle of nowhere, effectively.

Bruce 

People in England were amazed to find out they were there.

Andrew 

That these paintings seem so tied to the history of England and Ireland in so many different ways. What does it mean to have them so far away from home?

Bruce 

I think it’s like any great art really, you can admire it anywhere. A lot of the galleries in Australia are full of medieval paintings, Renaissance paintings, 19th century paintings. They still make a big impact, because the artist had something to say when they did them. And I think the emotional appeal is universal.

Andrew 

That profound painting with the nude woman and the priest is just overwhelming. It really is.

Bruce 

Oh, yes, the Orpen, yes.

Andrew 

Did you get to say that one in person?

Andrew 

Oh yes, that’s in Mildura. Most of the pictures in the film are in Mildura. Not all, there was a section on some of the murals that Brangwyn did in America. The people who had those, I got them to send me images of them which we could use. And of course, then we went to Dublin and there’s a statue of Orpen that’s gone up now.

Andrew 

It’s a beautiful statue.

Bruce 

He’s not forgotten in Dublin.

Andrew 

One of the things that is touched on is how you talk about the different artists have to use various different tools, and they create different things. It’s not just paintings, there’s furniture, there’s sculptures. You have a fascinating and deep career feature films and then moving to documentaries…

Bruce 

Actually, when I was in England in the 70s, I did a whole lot art documentaries,

Andrew 

So it’s kind of returning to roots in a way.

Bruce 

I did about 10 of them for the Arts Council of Great Britain. They must still have them.

Andrew 

And what were they about?

Bruce 

Oh, I did a great pile. I did one on Magritte. I did one on Lichtenstein, Poussin, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Giacometti, and two or three others. There was there was a great pile. I did them for the Arts Council. And then they presumably still got them all,

Andrew 

I would really hope so because your work is greatly important and just like talking about these artists, we don’t want to lose these important cultural aspects of different artists careers, and it would be really something to be able to dig into those and to see your journey as a director throughout the years from these documentaries to modern day.

Bruce 

Yes, I’ve never I’ve not got copies of all those documentaries I did. I didn’t have copies of any of them. And I assume the Arts Council in Britain still got them. I’ve never even looked up online, but I’m sure they still got. One of them about Magritte was actually shown it in the cinemas throughout Britain. The others were really for special screenings or television. But the one on Magritte was shown in the theaters.

Andrew 

What kind of specific type of art got your eye immediately?

Bruce 

The Arts Council ones were really ones where they would get in touch with me and say, Look, Bruce, there’s this special exhibitions, say on, Magritte or Lichtenstein. We want you to make a film about it. What I always tried to do was to make it interesting so that it told you a story about them. And I was usually working with some critic who was a specialist in that particular guy. So they weren’t just photographic records, they were documentaries with information. There wasn’t everybody I was mad about. I thought Magritte was great, but there were others that I wasn’t that crazy about their work, but I still made the films. I was very, I was very young.

Bruce 

How old would you have been when you’re doing those?

Bruce 

In my 20s.

Andrew 

And then you returned to Australia.

Andrew 

I came back to Australia when I was about 30. I’ve still got a flat in London. Yeah, yeah. So I go back and forth. And if it wasn’t for the COVID thing, I’d be there now.

Andrew 

As you’re making these films, do you branch across different countries? I know you’ve made some American films and British films.

Bruce 

It’s just where the script takes you. Whenever I get a script that excites me, it could be anywhere. I’ve made films in all sorts of strange places.

Andrew 

You certainly have a very varied and broad filmography that you’ve got. Do you think about that much?

Bruce 

Not really, because I think if I come across a story, a script, or maybe I even write it myself, something that interests me and it could be it could be anywhere. And also I don’t like to repeat myself. I like to do a film on a subject, and I usually find by the time it’s finished, I’m exhausted with it. And then I’d like to do something differently.

Andrew 

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was watching this, we’ve had the the 40th anniversary Breaker Morant last year, and then the 40th anniversary of Puberty Blues. And now I’m watching An Improbable Collection, and I’m thinking, could you get any more diverse?

Bruce 

*laughing* No, not from Barry McKenzie to An Improbable Collection.

Andrew 

It’s crazy. It’s great. As an Australian film lover that people are given the chance to dig back into your filmography and see how diverse the films were. I think that a lot of people when they hear the name Bruce Beresford, I imagine they have a they have a film that comes into their mind. And for me, it’s Breaker Morant.

Bruce 

Yes, it tends to be Breaker Morant or Driving Miss Daisy.

Andrew 

When you think of a Bruce Beresford film, what do you think of?

Bruce 

You know, I don’t know that I’d ever think about it really? Each film has been a story that fascinated me and usually a big struggle to get them made. If someone says to me, oh, after you’ve done all of those films, you must be able to do anything you want. I wish that was true! It’s certainly not true. It’s still very difficult. Every one of those films is a big effort involved to getting them off the ground?

Andrew 

I imagine that might have been something that would have been proposed to you after winning one of the most prestigious awards around which is Best Picture. I imagine that people would have assumed that the world is your oyster after that. What was that like after that?

Bruce 

Well, it didn’t really make a lot of difference, because I’d still say I want to do this, I want to do that. And they’d say, oh I won’t make any money Bruce, we can’t finance that kind of stuff. It might have helped a little bit. It must have helped a bit because I’ve kept working.

Andrew 

You have, and you’ve done a great job. You’ve made a really impressive, important career. I want to touch on something raised earlier, which is the impact of critics. Who do you feel deems an artist to be minor? With the artists that are in An Improbable Collection, there were critics who said that they were minor, but is it also society as a whole who deems them to be minor?

Bruce 

Well, it’s the art critics really. They moved from trend to trend, and they’re the ones who decide. And then of course as I said in the documentary, these positions are never fixed. A lot of these people, they’re forgotten for hundreds of years, and then make comebacks. That’s happened to a lot of Renaissance painters. They happen to people like Caravaggio, who was considered a hack for 200 years, and suddenly someone writes a big article and says, ‘wait a minute, let’s have another look at this’. Next thing you know, his stuff, if it ever comes on the market, is going for millions and millions and millions of dollars. Certain art critics can be very, very influential. And they really control taste.

Andrew 

Do you feel that that’s the same case for Australian film criticism as well?

Bruce 

Not to the same extent, and not to the same extent these days. When I started making films, there were certain critics like Pauline Kael or David Denby in America, who, what they said about a film tended to make it a success or not. If Pauline Kael liked it, or Denby in the New York Times liked it, you could think well, it would probably be a success. But now everybody’s a critic, with all the stuff online. There’s so many opinions floating around, that those people who used to be very dominant opinion formers don’t have that power anymore. They’re still influential, I think, but it’s not as not as total as it was.

Andrew 

What about the changing aspect of the Australian film industry, how do you feel that it’s changed over the years?

Bruce 

I think it’s been an incredible worldwide success, really. It’s gone on and on and on with really first class films never stopping. You think, who comes now and then someone else crops up and someone else crops up and someone else crops up, and of course, it never will stop. And there’ll always be talented people who’ve got something to say which is new and original, and fresh. I’m very optimistic about it.

Andrew 

With Puberty Blues it nice to know that your film has kind of been kind of respected enough that people have made a TV show about it. What’s your reflections on that film 40 years on?

Bruce 

You know, I haven’t seen it since we did it. I’ve never seen it again.

Andrew 

Do you revisit any of your films at all?

Bruce 

No, never.

Andrew 

Why is that?

Bruce 

Well, because by the time that you’ve finished them, and they’re all ready to be watched, I’ve seen them so many times, and worked so hard on them for so long, that when they’re finished, they’re finished.

Andrew 

Even something like Breaker Morant?

Bruce 

Yeah, I’ve never seen it again.

Andrew 

That kind of surprises me.

Bruce 

Do you sit down and read your old articles?

Andrew 

No, no, that’s true. That is true. Especially the older ones, where you look at it and you go, why did I do that.

Bruce 

I’d probably feel the same about the film.

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