Since starting in 2003, BY Experience has brought various live filmed events to millions in select movie houses around the world. While its most famous and successful presentations have, of course, been the operas associated with The Met: Live in HD, the Brooklyn-based company also has produced and marketed rock concerts, plays, radio programs and celebrity interviews as one-off, digital cinematic simulacrums.
Strange then to discover it took a bit of convincing for BY Experience to see that an art exhibition might merit the big-screen showcase. That the firm's co-president Julie Borchard-Young has been convinced is evidenced by her intention to run three art-show films this year, with "more in the pipeline" for 2014, all under the series heading Exhibition. The first, Manet: Portraying Life, unspools Thursday evening on an estimated 1,000 screens in 28 countries, including more than 70 Cineplex venues in this country. This is to be followed June 27 by Munch 150 (marking the sesquicentennial of the birth of the tormented creator of The Scream) and on Oct. 10 by Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.
On first inspection, such presentations seem no-brainers. Take a camera crew after hours to a once-in-a-lifetime art show by a commanding, popular painter in a distinguished museum or gallery (in Édouard Manet's case, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which since late January has lured some 600,000 to stand before such Manet hits as Olympia, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, The Railway and The Luncheon). See his or her masterpieces without having to stand on tiptoe or peer under an armpit, scramble for tickets or book airfare and a hotel. Linger on the luscious brushstrokes. Watch the camera caress the picture plane, then slowly zoom down a hallway. Voilà! "A super-size VIP virtual tour," as Borchard-Young put it in a recent interview.
Nevertheless, Borchard-Young did pause last year when veteran British documentarian Phil Grabsky approached BY Experience to see if it might be interested in distributing outside the U.K. a high-definition event film he was making of Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan, an exhibition featuring nine of the artist's 15 surviving paintings, mounted by the National Gallery in London (Nov. 9, 2011-Feb. 5, 2012). Grabsky liked what BY Experience had done with its opera presentations and its distribution, outside Britain, of live productions from the National Theatre.
Borchard-Young – she's also director of worldwide HD distribution for New York's Metropolitan Opera – was interested. At the same time, she wondered if focusing on the static, two-dimensional surface that is in essence a painting, fixed to a wall, would make for involving cinema.
"When an artist has captured a moment on canvas, that moment is sacred, complete; it shouldn't be mucked around with," she observed. "But the big-screen experience requires movement, a storyline, it requires an entertainment factor.… Leonardo, we decided, would be our pilot. It would be a test for us, a test for him and an experiment on behalf of all the cinemas."
Fortunately, Grabsky rose to the occasion. And when Leonardo Live, as it was called, was released, to great success, Feb. 16, 2012, by BY Experience in 20 countries, Canada among them, it included many of the bells and whistles Grabsky subsequently brought to Manet: Portraying Life – lots of paintings lovingly lensed, but behind-the-scenes moments, too, as well as biographical detail, historical context, speculation, visits to locations significant to the subject and explications of individual works by a battery of mavens and aficionados. Foremost among these is British art historian Tim Marlow, the series' host, interviewer and primary narrator.
No question Manet: Portraying Life is a treat for the eyes, sore or otherwise. I expect some viewers will complain that it skimps on the history, biography and interpretation, that it doesn't give much sense of the Royal Academy – but how can a 91-minute tour be all things to all art buffs? The exhibition's greatest weakness, in fact, resides in Borchard-Young's initial misgiving. For all the unobstructed views, crisp close-ups and contemplative, at times torporific tone, it's not the next best thing to being there. Unlike attending an actual show (or perusing a good full-colour monograph at home), the viewer is beholden to the priorities of Grabsky's camera, how it presents what it's privileging and the respective durations of these engagements. In a real museum, you set your own pace, decide what's worth 20 seconds or 10 minutes, elbow your way past the hordes to determine just what caused that drib (or is it a drab?) in the left-hand corner that's caught your eye. Manet: Portraying Life is a fine machine for the production of an unobstructed view, but as an art experience, it's rather, well, flat.
Manet: Portraying Life plays at selected Cineplex theatres across Canada Thursday, simulcast at 7:30 p.m. in each time zone. Another cross-country screening is scheduled for April 28. For participating theatres, go to cineplex.com.