Whatever you think about him, it’s admirable that director Frederick Wiseman has pursued his documentary craft with such a focused and stylistically-consistent vision for over forty-five years. Since moving to London in 2000, I’ve tried to see all of his documentaries that have been included in the London Film Festival (as he produces one almost every year). These have varied in subject matter from the emotionally brutal Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence 2 to the squalid Crazy Horse to the deeply personal (for me) Belfast, Maine. Wiseman explores particular institutions or locations from a variety of viewpoints including spaces such as administrative meetings, rehearsals, people at work or candid personal conversations. His entry in the festival this year explores another high art institution in a way similar to his 2009 film La danse which focused on the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s a location much closer to home for me as it’s his first film shot in England. National Gallery films many aspects of one of the UK’s largest and most well established art museums to produce a dynamic portrait of both the institution and a meditation on our relationship to fine art.
Over the course of this three hour documentary we see the daily functions of the museum from opening to closing to cleaning. Outside shots of the gallery capture the time period this takes place in with the countdown clock to the Olympics standing in Trafalgar Square. At times Wiseman focuses on guided talks where charismatic and informed men and women enthusiastically discuss with a small audience the importance, possible interpretations and relevance of different paintings from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors to works by Turner. One class at the museum gives a descriptive and tactile presentation of an art work to a group of blind or sight-impaired individuals. A female guide/installation artist informs a tour group of teenagers that we should remain mindful that the National Gallery and many other great British institutions were only made possible because of the financial benefits of slavery and colonial pursuits. Art classes that centre around a live model are led by a chirpy teacher who guides students in methods of representation. Not only do these scenes portray the way the gallery serves as an active learning space, but they focus on the expressions of intrigue, meditation or boredom from the crowds who are looking at the art which is shown in fragments. An old man relates a joke about the Ten Commandments after seeing Moses portrayed in one picture. At another time someone is shown slumped on a bench asleep. These moments capture our active relationship with or indifference to art.
Many other scenes show fascinating behind the scenes elements of the gallery. This includes the careful cleaning processes that go on after hours. Meetings are held between directors of the gallery and marketing teams about how the gallery should be represented, whether it should align itself with charities and considerations over budget cuts. Some of these arguments are essentially over whether the institution should remain an elitist pursuit for the well educated or reach out to encourage the larger community to take part in what the gallery has to offer. The documentary cleverly captures how people thoroughly entrenched in a particular point of view dance around each other in their speech and body language refusing to yield to points which are persistently made. Some of the most exciting scenes show the way restoration work is done to the art. In addition, there are discussions between historians and restoration workers about what the restoration process means. One scene reveals an x-ray of a painting behind a painting and how certain shapes and elements of the original were incorporated into the final visible painting. These accounts show the fascinating methods of conservation and contemplate how art should be preserved for the future.
Wiseman’s style of documentary making presents a (selected and edited) form of reality whereby we come to understand the workings of this institution as unobtrusively and transparently as possible. There is never any interaction with the director or camera crew. No names or job titles are shown on the screen to identify who we are watching. Through the speech and actions of the people captured he reveals the competing ideologies of those involved in the National Gallery. Certainly a lot gets left out. At one point, we see a banner about Shell oil being hung over the front of the gallery’s façade by protestors while people walk by shaking their heads. Another time a man mentions how an artwork in the gallery was once attacked with a can of paint by a protestor and how the restorers worked through the night to return it to the painting’s original condition. We see snippets of these differing points of view, but the film doesn’t fully portray their complexity. This isn’t necessarily a problem as I don’t think the director is trying for total objectivity. Rather, the film succeeds as a subtle meditation on our day to day relationship with art, who gets to see art and how art is managed. There is a beautiful closing scene where two ballet dancers perform around a gallery. This seems a fitting summary of the way the film contemplates how much we allow ourselves to open up to and participate in the meaning of art.