Behind the scenes at London’s National Gallery

COURTESY ZIPPORAH FILMSIn the documentary “National Gallery

COURTESY ZIPPORAH FILMSIn the documentary “National Gallery

“National Gallery,” Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour exploration of what’s in the workings and what’s on the walls of the same-named British museum, is an art lover’s treat and a sterling example of what fly-on-the-wall cinema, when crafted astutely, can achieve.

It’s the latest documentary in which Wiseman examines the cosmos of an institution, having previously burrowed into places such as a psychiatric hospital, the Paris Opera Ballet, and, most recently, UC Berkeley in his decades-long career. His method combines close-ups and long shots and eschews talking heads, narration and on-screen identifications.

Filmed in 2012 over a 12 weeks, the movie journeys into the conference rooms, restoration spaces, and public areas of the National Gallery, the 190-year-old London-based museum where more than 2,300 paintings, dating from the 14th through 19th centuries, hang. The camera captures activities ranging from workers polishing floors to executives discussing finances to art students sketching female and male nude models.

In one episode, officials address how the museum is dealing with budget cuts.

In another, discussion involves how exhibits less enticing than the blockbuster da Vinci show should be marketed to a public that deems classical museums starchy. In restoration rooms, technicians with X-ray machines and tools of the trade remove grime from masterworks.

Docents and curators, indirectly functioning as the very talking heads that the sly Wiseman avoids, describe to groups of kids and grownups the stories individual paintings tell.

There aren’t many surprises – nothing as dramatic as the tragic birth of a stillborn rhinoceros calf – a heartbreaking occurrence in Wiseman’s “Zoo” – happens here. Yet, combining old-masterly skill and an explorer’s curiosity rivaling that of Werner Herzog, Wiseman’s film is an intelligent and immersing portrait of one of the world’s most-visited museums.

In an age where the average gallery viewer is estimated to gaze at a work of art for six seconds, Wiseman astutely addresses how to look at a painting and illustrates the importance of museums and art in people’s lives.

Wiseman has assembled a wealth of detail into a graceful, comprehensive canvas. The bits therein are sometimes fascinating:

A docent notes that a biblical painting when seen by 14th-century worshippers in a candle-filled church looked immensely different from how it appears in an electrically lit museum. Another speaker acknowledges that the museum’s collection has roots in the slave trade. A restorer discovers that beneath the Rembrandt painting he is fixing lies an earlier Rembrandt.

The human element – a common Wiseman focus – comes through most resonantly when Wiseman focuses on visitors’ faces as they view a painting on the wall and consider it with newly enlightened eyes. Those who see this documentary should feel similarly heightened.

REVIEW

National Gallery

three and a half stars

Starring: Staff members, patrons of the National Gallery

Directed by: Frederick Wiseman

Not rated

Running time: 3 hours, 1 minute

artsdocumentaryFrederick WisemanMoviesNational Gallery

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Disability advocates protested outside the home of San Francisco Health Officer Tomas Aragon. (Courtesy Brooke Anderson)
Vaccine rollout plan for people with disabilities remains deeply flawed

On February 13, disability activists paid a visit to the house of… Continue reading

A Bay Area Concrete Recycling facility that opened on PG&E property in 2019. Former PG&E employees have been accused of accepting bribes from Bay Area Concrete. (Courtesy of Bay Area Concrete Recycling via ProPublica)
Lawsuit reveals new allegations against PG&E contractor accused of fraud

By Scott Morris Bay City News Foundation Utility giant Pacific Gas &… Continue reading

New protected bicycle lanes stretch from the city's Portola District to Bernal Heights. (Courtesy Bay City News)
City leaders celebrate protected bike lanes in city’s Portola, Bernal Heights neighborhoods

San Francisco city leaders on Thursday announced the completion of new protected… Continue reading

Basketball (Shutterstock)
Stanford’s NCAA Tournament hopes in peril after close loss to Oregon

Ziaire Williams nearly had his moment on Thursday night. After giving his… Continue reading

San Francisco Police Officer Nicholas Buckley, pictured here in 2014, is now working out of Bayview Station. <ins>(Department of Police Accountability records)</ins>
SF police return officer to patrol despite false testimony

A San Francisco police officer accused of fabricating a reason for arresting… Continue reading

Most Read