There are certain documentary filmmakers that I’ve belatedly discovered since starting this blog; I caught my third Albert Maysles film earlier this year, watched my first by Chantal Akerman a couple of months ago, and National Gallery is my first exposure to the work of the revered Frederick Wiseman, now in his mid-80s and with close to 50 films in his back catalogue. It’s nice to have so many unseen films by these three lying ahead, if a little daunting, but in terms of Wiseman’s work National Gallery seems like an accessible starting point, and perhaps an apt one seeing as it’s his most recent (In Jackson Heights played in a few film festivals recently, but is not on general release in the UK yet, as far as I’m aware).
London’s National Gallery is a space that I’m very familiar with: having lived in the city for fifteen years I’ve probably visited around ten or fifteen times, from brief one hour pre-pub drop-ins to entire days spent pacing the rooms and generally being overawed by the impressive collection. It features work by da Vinci, van Gogh, Turner, Holbein, van Eyck, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Bruegel, Monet, Manet, Rousseau, Caravaggio, Goya, Canaletto and Rembrandt, among others, and many of the paintings by these artists are foregrounded in Wiseman’s documentary about the institution, the camera lingering on the artworks or occassionally pulling back to show the way members of the public act or interact with them. Wiseman is less interested in the gallery’s visitors than its employees, but I like the fact that the focus is on the latter, as a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage included here is fascinating. I’d warrant that we see nearly all of the National Gallery’s employees, from scholars and guides to those in charge of its budgets, from framemakers and decorators to those who care for and restore its paintings, and while we do not get to know any of them personally it’s more about marvelling at the collective knowledge, skill and enthusiasm. The film is three hours long, and if that sounds like a chore then I will point out that the exact opposite is the case; it’s calm, and often quiet, but National Gallery is never boring or tedious. My only negative comment is utterly flippant: how did Wiseman, who usually films for between four and six weeks in such places, ensure it was so quiet (aside from the footage of so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions)? The last time I visited the National Gallery, a couple of years ago, it had reached saturation point in terms of the number of people crowding the more popular works and taking selfies or photos of the paintings. Anyway, I digress: this is an excellent film, and please don’t be put off by its length.
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman.
Cinematography: John Davey, Frederick Wiseman.
Editing: Frederick Wiseman.
Running Time: 180 minutes.