Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary NATIONAL GALLERY runs three hours; three hours of dissecting and analyzing the workings of one of the world’s great Museums - the National Gallery in London England. Probing paintings’ meaning and content; structure and design; the decisions involved in the way venerated and treasured works of art are preserved, restored, cleaned, lit and hung. We also are privy to the voices of the docents, curators, and staff talking about specific artworks connecting their audiences to the aesthetics, beauty, history, and science of conservation; the various pathways a painting takes from its original creation; its entry into various collections, and finally to its safe-keeping for posterity in the National Gallery Museum. We even listen to Nicholas Penny, the rumpled-haired Museum Director in a lecture taking a stab at Poussin - admitting that he is not sure if he likes the work, but is always intrigued by it.
Questions of elitism and exclusivity vs.accessibility and egalitarianism in light of budgetary considerations are discussed at meetings; there are lots of meetings. The film might have edited out some of the discussions - but I felt that the prosaic, the boring, the everyday-ness was worth observing. The running of a museum is not always glamourous. The decisions that establishments have to make in order to grip the public’s interest - what lengths do they go to attract visitors, and at what price to their institution?
Wiseman just lets his camera roll; he never uses “voice overs”. His working method and vitality at age 84 is unchanged - not intrusive - the filmmaker is always invisible - interviews are conducted by others. Frederick Wiseman lets us be the proverbial “fly on the wall” in a space that ordinarily would be bug-proof.
I loved watching one of the restorers discussing the cleaning of Velasquez’ Christ in The House of Martha and Mary and passionately ponder the dilemma - do we over-strip the varnish used 100’s of years ago and thereby brighten and change the artists’ original intent? Ethical problems and compromises come into question. An in-house construction of a triptychs’ impressive frame delicately carved by the crafts-men and women associated with the Museum, and the lighting of the finished piece held me spellbound, as did the issue of a cast shadow obscuring the top 1/4 of the painting once the work was installed. We also pay heed to restorers scraping away tiny slivers of paint with scalpels, Q-tips, eye-droppers, etc. and then put the minuscule paint shavings on a slide tray to be placed under a microscope to be scrutinized - to be thoroughly examined yielding a plethora of information; new scientific techniques today make this kind of investigation possible. We mark the fragility of time’s passing on art realizing that there are effects that you have to live with, and guard against, but ultimately methodical and deductive technical intervention will be called upon to “save” the work from aging and deterioration.
The camera also takes us outside the Museum with aerial views of Trafalgar Square lit by the grays of daylight to the shimmering of the early darkness -focusing on the diverse community waiting patiently in the cold to to see the Da Vinci exhibition "Painter at the Court of Milan” (2012.) We are never far away from the human response to art - the intensity of the onlooker’s gaze, the curiosity, confusion, delight, horror and interior peace that art can inculcate.
Other blockbusters such as “Turner Inspired by the light of Claude” and "Metamorphosis: Titian 2012” are exhibitions that we are fortunate to attend and hear curators/docents of varying sizes, ages and accents advocating for art’s fascination and magnetism; confronting us with their disparate styles - some humorous, others psychoanalytical - all informative. Each artwork has a presence with an individual history and personal narrative imprinted on its essence - like life itself this movie is thrilling, enigmatic, complex and a singular jewel.