Australian director Bruce Beresford, known for films such as Driving Miss Daisy, Mao’s Last Dancer and the Academy Award nominated Breaker Morant, is a keen art collector. Here, he talks to Naomi Evans about how his love for art has shaped his life and films.
Film is of course a compelling medium where story, visuals and sound can be crafted to profound affect, but when did you discover an interest in the visual arts?
Well when I was in my early teens I suppose, because we grew up in a part of Sydney where my parents had really no interest in any painting or music or anything like that.
I mean, my father actually must be one of the few people I ever met who never read a book in his entire life. Nothing, except one called How to Win Friends and Influence People. The only one he read. Yes. It never worked, actually.
But I became interested largely from school. I remember teachers from school recommending books that I liked and that happened and then listening to music. Classical music I became interested in from hearing it on the ABC, and pictures I think from again school and visits to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I thought “Oh this is interesting”, and it just sort of developed on from there.
How good that a school actually took you to see an art gallery, that seems quite rare.
They did – not often. I remember that we used to have an annual trip into the city and we’d go to the gallery … I was always fascinated by the big narrative pictures.
There was one where somebody was visiting the Queen of Sheba. It’s still there in the Sydney gallery and I remember they couldn’t get me away from it. I was standing in front of it and they were saying, “Come on Bruce. We’ve got to go to another room”, and I just thought that picture was fabulous. This was at primary school.
From what I understand it was actually at school that you came across Jeffrey Smart.
Yes now that was at high school. At Kings School Jeffrey Smart was the Arts Master, and I wasn’t in the art class because I couldn’t draw for nuts – I still can’t – but a friend of mine was in the art class and I used to go and meet him. I would wait outside the art class for my friend to come out because he was a film fan, and then I used to sometimes chat to Jeffrey who was always, unlike all the other masters in the school, extremely approachable and very friendly and would always explain what was happening and I went on from that.
Then when I left school I saw him again. I was at the ABC, and I was an assistant cameraman. I must have been about 17 and we went to a big art show to film it, in Sydney, and it was Jeffrey’s paintings. And he said, “Oh I remember you from school”, and from then on we always kept in touch.
After studying in Sydney, you moved to London for a time. How did this affect your interest in film and art?
Well of course being in London was incredible because you could go to all these wonderful galleries. Clive [James, with whom he shared a flat] and I used to go off endlessly. I mean it was the amount of time we spent at the National Gallery, at the Tate, and then Clive would track down all the poetry readings and we’d go often to the US Embassy. It used to bring over American poets, famous ones, and they’d give readings.
We used to go to those, and a hell of a lot of galleries. And also concerts. We were always up in the cheap seats, or up in “the gods” at the opera.
Some of your films have taken you to some extraordinary places with the opportunity for chance encounters. How is it that you find the artworks that have come into your collection?
Well of course Frank Brangwyn was [once] the most famous painter in the world and it was easy to find him. I usually just stumble upon them. There’s a dealer in LA who used to go to old movie stars’ houses. He still has this place called the Los Angeles Fine Art Society which is on La Cienega Boulevard and I used to drive past and then I would see the pictures in the window. I mean this was years ago, the first time. So I stopped and I went in and said. “You’ve got some very interesting pictures”, and we got to know each other very well.
He had lots of figurative pictures, which I liked and nobody else did. I mean, the figurative was right out. So he used to call me and say, “I’ve just got some more, you might come and have a look”. That’s where I got maybe a quarter of all the pictures I own - from that one place.
Were there any exhibitions around the world that you found particularly influential or that stand out?
Oh, I’ve been to hundreds. Especially in London, you get on the train and go to Paris. I remember the last one that I ever went to that made a huge impression on me was Bouguereau [William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825-1905] and I’d always thought Bouguereau was a hack. I thought, “They’re having a big retrospective of Bourguereau, I can’t believe it. I mean it’s all rubbish”.
Then I thought I would go anyway, so I went to Paris. But when you see the Bouguereaus, as opposed to seeing the reproductions they are absolutely breathtaking. They are incredibly beautiful, and so moving. And I remember with one of them, I was standing in front of it and I got very embarrassed because I started crying. It was a little girl, just a painting of a little girl. And it was so beautiful that these tears are running down my face and I am mopping them away. I won’t hear a word against Bourgeureau since then.
You were speaking last night about seeing Van Gogh’s works up close – that it was like magic.
Well it’s the difference in seeing the pictures as opposed to the reproduction. You sometimes get a tremendous surprise. And I’ve found another thing. In some films where I have wanted for some reason or other dramatically, we needed pictures on the wall allegedly by famous painters. So sometimes I’ve got painters in and I’ll say I need a Renoir there or a Van Gogh there – you can’t do it. Can’t be done.
It doesn’t matter how simple the original ones are, or how simple they look, they can’t be copied. And I’d look at these copies and I’d say, “We are not going to film it”, and they’d say to me, “But Bruce, this is quite a good copy” and I’d say, they are just not. I’d say, “Let’s get photographs of the original ones and we’ll rough them up so they look like they’ve been painted” …. but you can’t copy them.
Over the years, you have accumulated a wonderful and idiosyncratic art collection, that reflects your interest in people, relationships, stories and composition. Can you reflect on what it is that crooks its finger to you in artworks? How do you know that you’ve found a good picture?
Well, it’s just an emotional reaction. That’s all. You just look at something. Purely instinctive. Isn’t that what anyone does? I think it’s all you can do really. Just “bang” … and think: “That’s really good”.
This transcript has been edited for length.