Review by Stephen Mayne @finalreel
For all the celebrities walking the Lido at the Venice Film Festival last year, it was (then) 84 year old documentary maker Frederick Wiseman who received the biggest applause. Heading in to collect his lifetime achievement award, he was met by a spontaneous standing ovation from usually flinty critics standing along the way. National Gallery, his latest film, demonstrates for the umpteenth time in a career stretching back half a century just why it was so richly deserved.
Set in the heart of London at the world famous art museum of the title, he brings his unique approach to bear on yet another venerable institution, following up on At Berkeley, 2013’s four hour look at the University of California. In comparison, this is practically a breeze, clocking in at under the three hour mark. Even if that sounds long, it never feels it as Wiseman delivers an engrossing glimpse inside the museum.
Deploying his trademark style, there are no voiceovers, flashy gimmicks or talking heads. Wiseman himself is an invisible figure, only his guiding hand showing in the carefully edited footage from 2012. Instead, employees from Director Nicholas Penny down to tour guides, restoration experts and educational staff take centre stage as the camera moves through life drawing classes, groups for the disabled and combative meetings in which arguments politely rage over how to increase profile without diluting brand.
This emerges as a key theme throughout the film. How does a museum housing mostly paintings from centuries gone make that art relevant to the public. Staff argue about the need to focus more on visitors and propose involving the famous building in Trafalgar Square in charity campaigns. Penny pushes back, unwilling to give the impression that this is an institution for sale to the highest bidder.
But money is a problem. Filming a finance meeting, the straightened times facing everyone – this is 2012 austerity Britain after all – are clear. Costs must be reduced with declining revenues ahead; particularly after a blockbuster da Vinci exhibition ends and grants are cut. Much of it will fall on the staff. Wiseman rarely lets them out of the frame. Whether it’s a group of young children shown the story of Moses, an impromptu talk on the gallery floor about one of the paintings, or a lecture in which teachers are taught how to engage classrooms with the world of art, he shows the passion and commitment within the institution to connect art with the modern world.
Unlike earlier in his career there’s barely a polemical bone in National Gallery’s body though. He brings out themes through gentle repetition, the camera quite content to wander off on another tangent. Particular focus is given to the restoration process in which fading paintings are delicately touched up to return old shine. In the past, the Gallery had a controversial reputation in this field. Now, as one expert explains, the entire process lasting up to years is temporary, corrections painted onto a layer of varnish so it can be removed in fifteen minutes of cleaning. Elsewhere, stories and the art of telling them in one still picture catch his attention. Enthusiastic staff talk visitors through the difficulties in capturing the full picture in just one picture.
He closes on a slow, graceful dance routine at the new Titian exhibition, the two figures swirling and arcing around each other in front of his unobtrusive camera. Much like the rest of the film, he doesn’t get in the way, content to observe life inside The National Gallery. Then with a few cuts moving across the paintings, he’s done. Wiseman has been producing work of this quality for the better part of fifty years. What I wouldn’t give for fifty more.
National Gallery is on general release from Friday 9th January.