National Gallery review: Completely absorbing
James R | On 10, May 2015
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Watch National Gallery online in the UK: MUBI UK / TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Curzon Home Cinema
Part of the joy of visiting an art gallery is just wandering about, discovering new things, observing people, soaking up the feel of the place. When it comes to the National Gallery, the sheer size of the building increases that joy tenfold. Frederick Wiseman’s documentary captures exactly that.
His cameras case the joint in all its splendour and scale: the high ceilings, beautiful staircases and ornate frames are all easy on the eye. Your ears, meanwhile, are immediately occupied by eavesdropping (another fun pastime for visitors) on tour guides. They speak passionately about the works on display, bringing objects to life through vivid descriptions of Samson’s ambiguous Delilah.
But this is far from a mere educational tour of the canvases: Wiseman takes us behind the walls to reveal the goings-on in private. While guides point out details to punters, others are in dedicated seminars, recreating Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Monmartre at Night through 3D touch drawings, which allow people to feel the painting without sight. At the same time, workmen carve out wooden cases for the art and curators plan layouts of rooms. It’s the kind of activity that you take for granted when sitting on benches in the hallways. What if something hangs too low and the light leaves part of it in shadow?
In addition to its unrestricted access, the triumph of Wiseman’s film is not to present this with any commentary or voiceover – even vox pops to camera are shelved, in favour of actual footage of people doing things. The practical nature of what’s on screen gives such a revered institution a tangible, human quality that, bizarrely, can occasionally seem missing from a gallery: for all of the hushed tones that people sometimes adopt when faced with a cultural establishment, this documentary reveals how buzzing the place actually is. With no guide to direct us, it all blends into part of the same overall tapestry: there’s no difference between the suited heads discussing budgets and charity funding for the coming year, and those escorting the public downstairs. It’s all part of what makes the building work. And Wiseman wanders, letting us soak it all up.
The film is titled National Gallery, a decision that sums up the movie’s whole approach: like some of the best paintings, this is a hugely complex work presented as simply as possible. It’s a three-hour visit to the National Gallery. And it’s completely absorbing.
National Gallery is available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 13th June 2020.