Now On DVD: Frederick Wiseman’s ‘National Gallery’ is a Masterpiece of Impression

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Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries have always been about how he sees things, the impression that he got while visiting a hospital for the criminally insane or a high school or a welfare office or Madison Square Garden. Recently, though, he’s been making some films of places of a more spectatorial nature, where he not only captures how he sees things but also how he sees others seeing things. Even the university-set At Berkeley involves a good deal of close-ups on students’ faces during the performance of a lecture or lesson, matched by a reverse shot of the professor they’re paying attention to. Now, he’s made his most perfect film of this kind, with National Gallery. Wiseman’s most reflexive work to date, it’s naturally all about ways of seeing.

There is a certain obviousness to that, as this is a documentary of an art museum, namely the eponymous institution in London. But there’s still a brilliance to the way Wiseman collects and presents a series of talks on art and artists and their audience that constantly seems to be a commentary on the film itself. At one point, a tour guide literally compares a painting to a movie and the painter to a director, one who considers the viewers when deciding on the one moment of a scene to single out for that audience. Other times, we’re asked, along with museum visitors, to imagine the intended experience of seeing various pieces, a triptych that had hung in a church, a work that had hung over a giant fireplace, how an artist’s works look displayed together, in an exhibit, as opposed to by themselves or with unrelated pieces. “Context is almost kind of crucial,” says curator David Jaffe of the way some paintings are to be viewed.

After watching National Gallery, I’d say it’s totally crucial, but obviously someone who works at the institution isn’t going to imply that they’re the wrong sort of venue for the thousands of items they have on display. Occasionally the film even addresses the questions of how such a major art museum should be seen by the world, from the locals to the tourists and the global art community. Pretty much anytime the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, is on screen, he’s discussing something pertaining to the reputation of the place. He shoots down anything close to an idea that might make them look like they’re trying to appeal to a lower class of visitor. He argues futilely against the city’s thinking that having a marathon (maybe the London Olympics or Paralympics) end outside the museum does nothing for their business or image, exposure-wise. He’s not being snobbish, but logical and reasonably concerned.

Other ways Wiseman taps into the main theme include a look at frame making and the consideration of what kind of literal framework a painting is meant to have. There’s also a scene in which blind people are taking a class in art appreciation and given special contour copies of works that help them see the masterpieces in their own manner. Best of all is the section devoted to restoration, as we’re enlightened as to the difficulty of such work. It’s not simply about fixing areas with knowledge of what the painting should look like. There’s more presumption and guesswork and detective work that might come up with no answers. Again, there’s a lot of speculation at hand to determine how something did, should and can look. Also, we get a magical presentation on what science is able to reveal about the history of a painting’s production that past restorers never even dreamed possible.

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The film itself is a kind of triptych, though not too stringent in its division and focus. The first hour has more of the basic theme of exhibition context, the second hour is more devoted to restoration and then the third hour brings in stuff that I imagine isn’t as much an everyday finding at the National Gallery but which is enough of a part of the institution that Wiseman documented a good deal of it during his 12 weeks on the premises in early 2012. It’s also stuff I’m not surprised he’d be attracted to: other arts and how they relate to and work off one another. There are poetry readings and music and ballet performances inside the halls of the National Gallery. The latter includes Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which inspired paintings by Titian. And then there’s a painting by Nicolas Poussin noted for the inspiration he took from the art of sculpture.

Between all the talk about how things are and ought to be seen and the more subtle support for that theme are more ordinary montages of what most people’s experience is like at the National Gallery. The waiting in lines for big exhibitions such as (then) “Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” and “Turner Inspired: By the Light of Claude.” Sequences of patrons just staring at paintings or sketching reproductions of paintings or following tours. Due to the context of the theme of context, it’s hard not to think about Wiseman’s construction of these smaller civilian moments. The shot of the painting being looked at following the shot of the person looking is itself an attempt to present that painting as it had been seen at that time by that person. But that’s more reproduction than restoration. Most of it also seems rather brief. Even in a lengthy Wiseman film it’s impossible to convey the reality of how much time people put into gazing at individual works, as is it difficult to give every part of the museum, let alone every piece in the collection, a turn on the screen.

Neither about the National Gallery nor a full virtual visit to the museum, National Gallery is strictly an impression of the place that Wiseman got while there. It’s more than that, though, for those of us now on the viewing end of his work. The filmmaker turns art into art on a whole new plain; he’s made the acts of looking and thinking and investigating about art out to be their very own artform, and he’s documented this perspective as a masterpiece of cinema on top of that. It’s the first film of his in a while that I’ve wanted to revisit again and again, maybe continually project it on the wall as if it were a hung painting.

This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 11, 2014. It is being reposted now that the film is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Zipporah Films.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.