Another enjoyable, immersive work from a master filmmaker.
It’s no understatement to say Frederick Wiseman is one of the best documentary filmmakers of all-time. Wiseman, now in his eighties, has spent over four decades filming different subjects in the same detached, observational, “cinema verité” style (although Wiseman has expressed his distaste for the term in the past). He spends weeks filming, usually around a location or institution before paring down the footage to a feature. What’s impressive is how much Wiseman gets out of his work method. It’s natural to call him one of the great observers.
So it makes sense that Wiseman would get along nicely with material about the act of observing. Wiseman spent three months filming around London’s National Gallery, capturing as many different facets of the institution’s operation as possible. The camera’s gaze, always curious, roams the halls of the gallery while taking a peek at what goes on behind the scenes. The gallery is home to thousands of paintings, and Wiseman dedicates plenty of time to showing off the gorgeous pieces of art lining the walls. He shoots each painting in a close-up, removing the frame and surrounding area, a simple tactic heightening the aesthetic pleasure of viewing such great art. By having each art work take up the entire frame, it feels like looking at the canvas with a fresh perspective.
As much as Wiseman likes to look at pieces of art, an almost equal amount of time is dedicated to viewing people looking throughout the gallery. Wiseman’s documentaries eschew traditional means of relaying information; no narration, title cards or interviews (no one ever calls awareness to the camera’s presence either). This draws attention away from parsing the specifics of scenes and toward their general purpose in comparison to what scenes surround it. Eventually common trends and themes present themselves through this process, like how each scene in High School showed someone getting punished for expressing themselves in a non-conforming manner.
Here, a common theme of people interpreting art pops up. This extends beyond scenes of tour guides explaining certain artworks. An early scene has two gallery workers debating over whether or not they should market to appeal to bigger audiences or try to keep their more dignified image. People sit in on lectures dedicated to explaining certain paintings, as well as how to teach people to interpret paintings for themselves. Classes held by the gallery include sketching nude models and helping blind people appreciate art through touch. The most fascinating part of the gallery Wiseman comes across is the amount of work taken to restore and touch up certain paintings. An x-ray of a Rembrandt painting reveals a completely different, unfinished work underneath, making the restorer try and understand what part of the work is intentional or seeped through from the original piece. At one point a restorer talks about the difficulty in determining what parts of a painting are the artist’s intention or a defect from age. In their own way, these people are trying to figure out the meaning of these paintings, much like the people passing through the gallery’s halls every day.
Other behind-the-scenes moments, like watching the construction of frames or how much work goes into designing and lighting exhibition spaces, are compelling on their own merits. The lack of something unifying everything together thematically holds National Gallery back from becoming something truly excellent, but Wiseman is a master of his craft, so even in its (somewhat) scattered approach National Gallery provides plenty of enjoyment. In the film’s final minutes, a reading of a poem inspired by one of the gallery’s paintings highlight how great art can inspire people to create new, different forms of art. National Gallery doesn’t need to tell viewers how boundless and inspirational great art can be; it lets the work speak for itself.