“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.
three and a half stars
Starring: Staff members, patrons of the National Gallery
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman
Running time: 3 hours, 1 minute