National Gallery (2014) **** Streaming

April 28th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Frederick Wiseman

Documentary; France/UK/USA 2014, 181 min.

To call Frederick Wiseman a documentary filmmaker is somewhat absurd: for over four decades he has been telling stories about mental institutions; boxing halls; hospitals; ballet companies and universities. And this former teacher does all this without the classic tools of documentary filmmaking: voice-overs, talking heads, interviews and all form of identifiers are missing from his work. Instead the emphasis is on process: he is peeling off layer after layer. Therefore NATIONAL GALLERY is about art: its process, its mystery. But it is also about money
Wiseman has spent 12 weeks in the museum, the camera wandering freely through the institution, coming up with 170 hours of film but only three of them ending up in the final cut. One could say that cutting is his form of editing.

The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square houses mainly art from the 14th to the late 19th century. Its director, the art historian Nicholas Penny, is seen at budget discussions trying to define the role of the museum in regard to the public (expectations versus elitism) and, rather mundanely, discussing how to take advantage of the fact that the London Marathon ends at Trafalgar Square and that the façade of the museum would be used for a video projection.

Wiseman does not only stay in the building itself: He films Greenpeace activists putting up a banner from the roof of the building; “It’s no Oil painting”. With the ‘o’ in “oil’ looking like the Shell logo. It is clear that the banner refers to Shell’s drilling in the Antarctic and its support for the NG’s “Rembrandt: The Late Works” exhibition. With regard to matters financial, the director mentions that the money from the foundation collection of the museum was a donation by J.J. Angerstein, whose money was mainly made from his slave trading activities in Grenada.

It is difficult to choose the most impressive story in this engaging film, but amongst the most memorable is the one about a group of visually impaired patrons, sliding their fingers about an embossed reproduction of Pissaro’s “The Boulevard Montmarte at Night” (1897) whilst the curator explains all the details of the painting. Next is perhaps a psychological interpretation of Rubens’ “Samson and Delilah”, when the guide asks the audience to “imagine, how one would feel in Delilah’s place, having successfully fulfilled her spying mission and taken all the power away from Samson, after pretending to be in love with him”. A rather delicate question, indeed. Next a reminder of immortality: we are made full aware that many of the portraits in this museum were commissioned by the rich and powerful to achieve some form of immortality. In front of a Dutch table painting we hear that whilst the lobster has been long dead, the drinking horn has survived to this day.

On a more technical level, there is much to discover about the limits of restoration: a ghostly image on a Rembrandt portrait shows that another painting, perhaps a portrait of the same person, had been started before on the same canvas. But the restorer makes it clear that whatever his changes may be, the next person to restore the painting can start from scratch, because he simply has to take the varnish off. The intricacies of framing are endless, certainly it is an art form in itself. The many ‘Turner’s” on show allow us to  connect with Mike Leigh’s latest feature on the artist (Mr Turner) and finally, two ballet dancers performing in front of a Titian painting make a fitting climax to this remarkable three hour film which should be savioured at your leisure over a good bottle of wine. AS.

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