LONDON - The latest film in the Exhibition on Screen series has a somewhat provocative title: Renoir – Revered and Reviled. The film takes as its subject not Pierre-Auguste Renior’s popular Impressionist pictures but his late works: large paintings of fleshy nudes that have long divided viewers. The largest collection of these later canvases belongs to the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia, where the footage was shot. Following a screening of Renoir – Revered and Reviled this week at Sotheby’s, Exhibition on Screen executive producer and director Phil Grabsky will be joined in conversation with The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones and Sotheby’s Philip Hook. Ahead of the event, Grabsky gave us some background on the project.


How did the connection with the Barnes Foundation come about?

They contacted me having seen our earlier films. I was actually in Philadelphia making a film about the exhibition Inventing Impressionism at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Barnes Foundation is just nearby. I’d never been before. I was absolutely flabbergasted and would say it is the finest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. A wonderful array of works by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani, and 180 Renoirs. I immediately said I’d like to make a film about Renoir and particularly about his later works, which provoke extreme responses.

Is this the first film you have done with a permanent collection?

As we have progressed through the three series of Exhibition on Screen, we have broadened from monographic shows such as Leonardo at the National Gallery in London to stories with a more biographical angle such as the Girl with the Pearl Earring or on the Van Gogh Museum.


The Barnes Foundation has a strict stipulation about how it is displayed. What effect did that have on how you made the film?

You will never see these pictures unless you go to the Barnes because they have to be left as they were at the moment of Albert C. Barnes’s death. At one point we were trying to do a shot, and asked about moving a chair by about six inches. Not a chance, nothing moves. We did have some luck as we were there to witness the first time that they’d taken a major Renoir painting off the wall to X-ray it.

Your film in some ways takes the Renoirs out of the context of the collection and looks at them as a group. Do you actually create an exhibition on screen?

Absolutely – this story is not about the way they are hung. I’m using the paintings on the wall to tell my own story of Renoir and his artistic development. It has to be good story telling, so we bounce from the gallery to where Renoir lived in France, to other art experts talking at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, or the National Gallery in Washington and London. It is more a biography of one of the great Impressionists, one of the great painters, than a permanent collection film.

Exhibition on Screen: Renoir - Revered and Reviled is released in the UK on 16 February and internationally from 15 March.