For his latest institutional exploration, the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his inquisitive lens on the employees, patrons and paintings in London’s National Gallery. Time-wise, it’s a midrange production: three hours, longer than cut-to-the-quick features like High School (1968) and Boxing Gym (2010) but shorter than such epic-sprawl tapestries as four-hour-plus Belfast, Maine (1999) and At Berkeley (2013). Stylistically, it keeps with Wiseman’s preference for showing, not telling: no explanatory titles, no talking-head interviews. Just in-the-moment action, observing as the viewing public wanders the galleries and the museum staff—restorers, tour guides, executives—goes about its business.
Thematically, however, this is among Wiseman’s densest and best works—one that, after a profoundly emotional start, becomes a much stranger, slippery beast. (Its greatness is cumulative.) The film begins with several heady and moving odes to the viewing public: A museum guide explains to an attentive crowd how a Middle Ages church mural might have seemed alive to its spectators in the dimness of candlelight. (The parallel to cinema is wholly intentional.) A curator discusses with gallery director Nicholas Penny the need to make the various exhibitions—beyond a sure thing like Leonardo da Vinci—more accessible and inviting to the general public. In the most poignant scene (one that a lesser movie would make its tear-jerking finale), a group of legally blind people study Camille Pissarro’s painting The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) with the aid of braille-like copies and the encouraging words of a counselor who clearly believes anyone, regardless of a visual handicap, can experience a work of art.
Yet Wiseman is no sentimentalist. As National Gallery goes on, the topics become drier and more distant, with lengthy, often technical disquisitions on restorative processes and ideal modes of presentation. (Observe as a tri-part altar piece is lit with the minutest attention to unseemly frame shadows!) You may initially find yourself missing the emotional pull of the film’s first sections, but it’s all to an intriguing point. As the public becomes less of a focus and the inner workings of the museum take precedence, a fascinating subtext emerges about the elitist nature of the institution and, indeed, of many of the pieces in its collection.
Often, these portraits and murals were designed to be displayed in a single venue—far away from proletarian eyes. Some were heavily coded private jests between their creators and an extremely exclusive following. The popular view of art is that it belongs to the masses. Wiseman casts a more skeptical eye, questioning such egalitarianism with cold, hard historical context. Yet he simultaneously acknowledges that these works live on far beyond their original purpose, even if, as the film’s bold, brilliant climax suggests, they may eventually play to an audience of none.
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