Exhibition on Screen Director Interview: David Bickerstaff Talks About His Latest Documentary: Pissarro: Father of Impressionism

David Bickerstaff is one of the most prolific directors working at the moment, with a filmography made up of explorative documentaries focused on the world of artists and art that is collectively released under the iconic Exhibition on Screen banner. His latest film, Pissarro: Father of Impressionism, tells the life story of famed Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, including looking into his personal life and touching on his life as an anarchist, his family life with eight children, and his religion.

David’s work as a director in this field is like no other. It’s exploratory, and curious, and it acts as a touring art gallery, bringing iconic artists works to audiences around the globe via the magic of cinema.

In this interview, David talks about his process, being an artist, casting the right voice for artists and more.

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism launches in Australian cinemas soon.

Visit the Exhibition on Screen website for details.

Let’s get started talking about your work and the latest of the Exhibition on Screen films. Your work is almost exclusively in this realm. Where did that interest in presenting art on screen start with?

David Bickerstaff: At their offices, they’d set up Seventh Art Productions which is the production house that still makes Exhibition on Screen. We became good friends, Phil Grabsky and I. I was still doing my fine art practice, but I started to go into digital art and eventually into the museum sector. I would be making digital experiences for museums which included interactives in large immersive spaces video film, and this is where I came in contact with film and large-scale film.

Really, I’m a fine artist. I studied art in Australia and when I came over here, I was a practising artist, painting and drawing. And I found my way into digital art and that sort of moved me into filmmaking. And in fact, when I was a painter, I met Phil Grabsky who was the producer of Exhibition on Screen. As a young filmmaker, he had just come out of film school. And he had hooked up with a producer, partner, as a lot of young film companies are, and it was the producer who actually came to my exhibition and said, “I like your artwork. Can you come and do a portrait of me?” I said, “Well, I really don’t know you, but I’ll come to your offices.”

Phil was always interested. He was doing his documentaries, he made lots of TV programs. He always said, “I’d love to do a project with you.” And he said, “I think I’ve got a perfect one.” And it was a film about Chernobyl which had its narrative base in a set of poems written by Mario Petrucci based on a book by Svetlana Alexievich who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. That’s where we came together and we made our first feature together, basically. And then we made a few more things; Making Warhorse.

My first film I made with him was about Girl With The Pearl Earring, which was fantastic. It always been a fascinating painting for me. To get up close and to look at it, to unpack it in a way, and then to look at the rest of the collection in respect to that was really fantastic. And then after that Phil just kept asking me to come and do the films, and now I think I’ve done about twelve of them, I think? I’m not sure.

And then he said, “Well, do you want to come in and do one of the Exhibition on Screen projects?” And I said, “I’d love to try, I’d love to give it a go.” It was in a bit of a formula that I wasn’t sure whether I really fitted into as a director. I said I’d be interested, but I’d really like to sort of move it on a little bit more, just to make it a little bit more interesting for myself creatively as an artist. And also because I come from an art background, I was very interested in exploring practice: you know, what it is to put paint on, because I understand that. By looking at paintings, you can see how an artist builds up things. I wanted to bring a little bit more of that into my film.

Having a look at IMDb, I was like “That’s a lot of them.”

DB: That’s a lot of films. And if you think about it, not a lot of directors get to produce that many feature films, but it’s something that Phil’s been very generous in allowing me to do. We share things. Often I’ll be the cinematographer on his films, and he co-writes all the films I do. It’s a great partnership and it’s just going from strength to strength, really.

When you start a new project, do you start with the idea of “Okay, we’re going to investigate this particular person, and then do research”? Or is it a matter of “There is going to be an exhibition somewhere in the UK, and we need a film to match up with that”?

DB: Yes, it’s very much the latter. Well, let’s put that into context. Generally, the films are based on an exhibition or maybe even a couple of exhibitions as Pissarro is. Pissarro is based on a exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but also at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. They were both having major Pissarro exhibitions around about the same time and they were collaborating on it together.

The Ashmolean Museum had always been interested in Exhibition on Screen as a way of actually getting people to know more about the Ashmolean really, to get to get more of a global reach to audiences so they knew where this museum was, and what its purpose is, what its collections were. They were always keen that we would do a project, and we would have discussions with the directors of these museums. And they would say, “Well, we’ve got this show coming up. Does that sound appealing?” Or, “This show might be difficult because we can’t get all the rights for it.” There’s a lot of negotiation.

And then Phil and I will think about – well, mainly Phil would think, “Well, what is going to have a global appeal? What of these artists or these exhibitions? What is going to intrigue our cinema audiences all around the world to go into a cinema and pay their money and go and sit for ninety minutes and watch a film about an artist?” They need to have some sort of global appeal, some sort of global reach. Pissarro ticked a lot of those boxes already. He was the father of Impressionism, one of the major stalwarts, not as well-known as perhaps Monet, Renoir, Degas.

To tell you the truth, when I first came to the project, I had that similar view that he was on the periphery a little bit. But as soon as I got involved with the Ashmolean who hold the Pissarro family archive – they have all his letters which unpacks a whole human story that I never knew. And this is what I hope comes across in the film as well, that there are elements to this man that really a lot of people don’t understand. Because I think his artwork is a little bit more perhaps genteel. It’s a bit more picture boxy of all the Impressionists. It looks quiet, like these pretty landscapes with peasants. But there’s a lot more to them, and that’s what I was hoping we can unpack in the film.

Is there a duty or an honour in being able to bring his legacy back to life, back to prominence through a film like this?

DB: Yes, it’s a very interesting one, isn’t it? Because I find that when I make these films, it’s like doing a mini thesis. You really do have to do a lot of reading, and not just take what the academics say. Because you get to interview a lot of experts and sometimes they wheel out these tropes or truisms about he did this and he did that. But I think they’re up for a challenge and as documentarians, we should challenge some of the tropes around these artists and the myths around them.

But on the same point, it’s also our responsibility to bring to life some of the things that people don’t understand or don’t know about these particular artists in a way that has made these artists globally famous and sort of well appreciated. He’s well collected: if you go to most collections, they’ve all got a Pissarro. He was not some sort of amateur on the side, he was truly involved in the Impressionist movement.

He was an anarchist. He had eight children. He was a family man, he was Jewish, he was born in the Danish West Indies. He was Danish all his life, even though he was born to French parents, and he was very patriotic to France. He never changed his passport, he remained Danish. A lot of people just think he’s another one of those French Impressionist artists, but he is much more dynamic and much more complicated than that as a character. And I think that is what we tried to bring out in the film.

It’s very important to us that we have a strong story to tell. If there’s not a strong story to tell, there’s not much point in making the film. The thing that we found with the two major exhibitions is they were covering his early work, but also where he makes these transitions between Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, which I hadn’t quite realised. He was one of the people that were experimenting with pointillism along with Seurat and things like that. And then he rejected it in the end, he went back to Impressions.

It’s something that’s interesting, because he was always open for the experiment. He was quite a dynamic artist in that he was very keen to stick to his guns, he didn’t want to be sucked into the marketplace selling his paintings or anything like that. He really was the purest of all the painters in the sense. And in fact, because he was an anarchist, that whole idea of the collective coming together to put on their own exhibitions, as the Impressionists did in 1874, that’s very much his ethos. Work together as a group, and the audience will come. Let’s pass all the bourgeois art collectors, what do they know? Let’s try and put on shows that we believe in. I really admired him for that. He’s quite a lot stronger. Because in our history, he seems to come across as a slightly sort of gentle, benign sort of person, but he’s actually very active and vocal and very strong in the whole movement.

How do you discover that? Is that through letters? How do you get that kind of representation of him as a person that is removed from what the academics or the historians might have created?

DB: Don’t get me wrong. I really do like to talk to the academics because they’re the people who know the most about it historically. What I tend to want to do is challenge them emotionally a little bit, because they become very, “Oh, he did this. He did that, he did that. And then he went on to that, and that must have been very bad.” They say it just slightly matter of fact, but I said, “But what is your feeling about this? He was a man who’s got eight children yet he doesn’t go off and get a job he sticks with. And he’s encouraging these children not to go off and get a job, just to be artists. And meanwhile his wife’s tearing her hair out and saying, “How do we survive? How can we live on nothing?” She’s close to suicide. What do you feel about that as a person who’s lived with this character for maybe all of your academic life?”

It’s quite an interesting way of trying to get a sense of behind what academics are thinking. They’re not quite used to getting challenged. They’re used to talking to other academics and writing books and things like that. But then I like to get artists or contemporary artists or other people to reflect on what they see and what they observe. And that also brings another dynamic.

But I must say that his letters are brilliant. And I had the same sort of thing with Van Gogh. I’ve made three films on Van Gogh. And when I was at art school, I thought “Van Gogh eh. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Can I really make a film about Van Gogh? But I read his letters, all nine hundred of them, and they were so revealing. I had a completely different perspective.

It’s the same with Pissarro, reading the letters between him and his son Lucien who left and went to London in his twenties. That’s where this correspondence opened up. They almost wrote nearly twice a week to each other, it’s quite a lot of correspondence. And Lucien – when he passed away, all that correspondence went to the Ashmolean. They have it all there, and they have all the family photographs and things like that. It’s a brilliant archive. Fantastic. You get an understanding a little bit about [who] this person is and what he went through, and how he thought, his opinions on political situations, his approach to his heritage, to his children, his frustrations with the art market. You get all of this through the letters.

And how do you go about casting the right voice for the artist who you’re portraying?

DB: When I first started doing [these films], there was always a practice for Exhibition on Screen that you’d get good British actors to voice the letters. They are very great, great actors, and you get to listen to them and they’re easy to listen to. But when I made my first Van Gogh film, I said, “Why have I got a British actor?” There’s always a British actor doing angsty old Van Gogh. But when I read his letters, that’s not the voice I was hearing. I was hearing very much a Dutch voice. So I said, “Let’s get a Dutch actor to do the voiceover.” And it immediately became much more effective for me.

On this film, I’ve looked for French actors. During COVID, it’s been kind of weird, we’ve been doing it all remotely. They’ve been in Paris and we’ve been communicating across the Zoom. But I feel it gives them a little bit more authenticity, less distracting than having this rather BBC type narrator reading the letters and things like that. I do like the authentic voice if I can do it and if it makes sense.

I think it adds so much more to it. And as an Australian, I’ve heard countless people do terrible Australian accent, and it just takes you out of it. I appreciated that a lot.

DB: We filmed in Oxford, and the curator there is very knowledgeable, but he’s very English, very, very English. If you had another very, very English person’s face, you want to get this division of the imagination. You want to say, “Okay, I’m listening to this voice now. And now I’m listening to the projected voice of Pissarro or the projected voice of a critique. I hear his wife who is not British. She is French.” So there is this relationship that you try to build up between the voices for the audience so it feels a bit more theatrical, more cinematic, rather than just a straight TV documentary.

Living in Perth, we don’t get to see most of these paintings because we’re too far away for these paintings to travel, so one of the things I really appreciate with the Exhibition on Screen films has been getting to see these films on screen. Whether it’s at home or in a cinema, it has been really great because I get a close-up look at the paintings and things like that. How important is that for you as a director? And then secondly, how do you go about filming these paintings? They’re very precious, they’re very fragile – how do you make sure that you’re not going to damage them?

DB: This is where that other part of my career has come into good stead because I’ve worked a lot in museums, and I understand the protocols of what to do and what not to do when you’re filming precious objects. And I think we have always been very, very lucky that we’ve been trusted to be in the galleries with very few people. There’ll be a couple of security guards and just us, and we’re left to do it.

Obviously where the painting is very sensitive, we use longer lenses and things like that. Actually, that’s a benefit because you see quite a lot on a long lens, very close up on a painting. Whole new narrative worlds open up when you get to the surface of the painting. They’re not just flat objects, they’re 3D objects. They have this sort of mark-making narrative. We tend to leave them on screen so people can make up their own mind about how things are done rather than tell people all the time.

That’s what cinema does brilliantly, it gives you time to look, time to absorb, time to reflect, time to question in your mind, “Oh, why did he do that? Or what’s he doing? What’s going on here?” And not maybe get all the answers, but to create the dialogue between the artist and the painting and the viewer. Let’s face it, that’s what artists do. They actually build these paintings, and then they put them out into the world and often they don’t see them again until they’re in a museum or they’re bought in a private house.

Artists often talk about when they’ve gone back to somebody’s house that they know had bought their painting years ago, and they see their painting up on the wall and they go “It’s like seeing an old friend.” Then they have a new relationship to it, they start to think “Oh, maybe I should have finished that off a little bit differently or whatever.” The good thing about the way we film them is that we try and build a relationship with each of the artwork so you can get a sense of where it fits within the story, where it fits in the timeline. Sorry, I’ve forgot the first part of your question.

The first part is making it like a touring art gallery in a way that manages to go to cinemas around the world.

DB: Yes, I mean, it’s very important. Exhibition on Screen used to have major distributors all around the world. But now they do a lot of distributing themselves just because it’s more economical. And then we have people in Australia and other people who are sort of like sub-distributors and what have you. This network has taken years and years to build up, but it’s very important. It’s very loyal.

I have found particularly when I’ve gone to festivals where we’ve shown the films – I just came back from Bulgaria. People talk about, “Oh, you made that film about Michelangelo? I absolutely loved that film.” It becomes part of their history of memory, that they saw this film about Michelangelo even though they’d never been to Rome.

This whole idea of being able to give a fairly honest projection of what these places are like – I think going to the locations is very important, particularly for me. I love to walk in the shoes of the artists, to get to those locations where they were, get into their studios if I can, if they still exist. With Pissarro, it still exists, it’s still there, it’s a private house, so it’s not open to the public. So we have to negotiate our way into the situation. But once we were in there, it’s brilliant. They’re very generous.

Generally, I think people are very keen to get the stories out about these artists. We do get a lot of co-operation, it helps that we’ve done a lot of them. Basically, we’re trusted with being truthful and being careful with the material. And sometimes we get little gems offered to us. When people open up the letters from Goya and they say, “Oh, are you interested in filming this?” I say, “Yes. Yes, please. Any other gems you might have?” That sort of access is all important in in making documentaries, any documentaries. And the more access you get to more unique material, the more chance that that becomes a little bit more of a unique, informed sort of story that you can tell.

With that in mind, is there an artist who you haven’t covered that you desperately want to cover?

DB: Well, I’d love to do Egon Schiele. And in fact, there was a fantastic show of Egon Schiele that came up in in Vienna where he was based. But I think the powers to be felt it was a little bit – because it is quite problematic. A lot of it’s about child pornography and things like that. It has very heavy subject matter and perhaps not quite for the Exhibition on Screen crowd.

There’s a lot of Impressionist artists out there, and you can make too many Impressionist films, I think, because the story starts to repeat a little bit. But there’s an artist that keeps coming across in the films, a female artist called Berthe Morisot who was married to the one of the Manets, and she is just the most amazing painting technician. Every time I see a painting of hers, I just look and look and look. They’re just incredible paintings.

She died very young, she died in her thirties, so her star didn’t really rise. And her daughter was painted by all the Impressionists. It’s quite an incredible family, and of course, being part of the Manet family is quite an intriguing story. And Manet the brother in law used to paint all the time. I would love to do that. But it’s not up to me to make those decisions.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!