National Gallery (USA: 2014): Wiseman’s profile of an art institution

It has always been difficult to locate the audience for Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. They are institutional profiles that capture moments of activity. There isn’t a call to action or requests for engagement. Any emotional connection that the viewer walks away with are his or her own. There is structure and maybe a narrative without much in the way of a climax in his documentaries. In the case of National Gallery, that narrative isn’t immediately apparent. It is a movie for the patient who enjoy learning facts serendipitously.

The subject is Britain’s famed art museum and the professionals who work in the building. Wiseman’s camera lingers within the walls in vignettes of three to five minutes, covering a little of everything that goes on in a museum – from the cleaning crew to the budget meeting – as the gallery carries out its education and preservation missions. If one is curious to listen in on conversations about paintings and museums, one will find it fascinating. Otherwise it will seem like three hours spent waiting for something to happen.

National Gallery was shot over a few months in 2012 in the period between major exhibitions one centered on Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and the other on Titian. There isn’t much in the way of conflict in the movie. Since the gallery is a premier institution, everyone appears to do their jobs very competently, with the only pressure being budget cuts and raises. We learn a little bit about everyone and sit in on various lectures and performances. A viewer should not expect a traditional gallery tour or a college history of art lecture. Wiseman isn’t trying to systematically educate the public on the holdings of the museum. If there is a lecture on a specific painting, or a tour group walking through the restoration department, Wiseman follows it around for awhile.

True to Wiseman’s other films, he never interviews anyone, unless giving interviews is part of a function. That approach of not producing interviews has an odd effect of producing a very real view into the internal class structure of the museum. Those employees whose jobs are public facing – curators, docents, tour guides, executives – have speaking parts in the film. Those who take over during the quiet periods – restorers, janitors, carpenters – rarely speak. We rarely hear from patrons either. But we do get an insight into the exacting work everyone does to make certain the paintings are available for viewing every day.

Wiseman captures many conversations going on in the gallery, some of which require a background in art to appreciate, but many which do not. None of the individual conversations are all that groundbreaking. The good news is that if one isn’t interested in the conversation of the moment – say, whether or not Watteau knew how to play the instruments he painted – the conversation won’t last too long. The conversations about art are one of the reasons we display it in public museums. If there is a message behind National Gallery, it is that since there are many conversations that one can have about the many personal reactions to a painting, one needn’t be ashamed if one doesn’t share a particular passion.

National Gallery may not be the best introduction to Wisemen’s work, but it is a good introduction to the Gallery. It is probably the most complete capture of an art museum currently in theaters, although there isn’t much competition.  I would probably recommend La Danse as an introduction to his profiles of fine arts institutions, mainly because the movement of dancers in that film is more interesting than art docents in front of paintings. But if you haven’t ever had an opportunity to visit the Gallery and are willing to learn a little bit about paintings and their installation, National Gallery may be the documentary to get you started.

***1/2 of five

IMDB: National Gallery

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