Painting has only “the speed of light to tell its story,” explains one tour guide in pro documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery (2014), a study of the Trafalgar Square institution. Wiseman’s film is nearly three hours in length (still an hour shorter than his previous effort, 2013’s At Berkeley), but every frame seems to illuminate some distinctive element of the ethereal nature of the place, and even at the speed of light his portrait of an institution in motion has questions that ruminate afterwards. In his signature style, without talking heads, narration or explanatory context, Wiseman takes us straight into the London gallery itself and the inhabitants inside – both human and paint-form.
A cleaner polishes the floor surrounded by masterpieces, whilst a high-level board meeting discusses its outreach programme to broaden its audience base. An early scene shows a tour guide discussing a medieval religious triptych, explaining that it would never have been “just a painting”, but seen as a portal to both Heaven and to God. Like the painting, is the museum more than just aesthetic, but its value at the core of a community – here a national one? Wiseman’s direction is distant and reflective rather than investigative or didactic; budget cuts are mentioned only in passing (it was filmed around the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in 2011), as Wiseman’s concerns are elsewhere. His conceit is to question the role of a national institution, and does that have implications for the role of the artist too?
J.M.W. Turner, as seen in Mike Leigh’s exquisite Mr. Turner (2014), wanted his art to be bequeathed to the nation, but most of the National’s works were intended for private collections or religious institutions, perhaps conceived for particular rooms or styles. What is a museum’s role in catering to that? In a city where – down the road – questions are asked over whether the British Museum should keep the Elgin Marbles or return them to where they were intended, that’s a profound point. Other scenes ruminate on the role more generally of national bodies. One scene depicts an art class for blind people, and several scenes indicate the importance of art in educating people to a wider understanding of the world.
A kooky guide in front of children presents Giovanni Bellini’s The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, describes woodcutters in the background who ignore the saint’s murder shows the tragedy of looking away from reality. But later, protesters climb the gallery façade to protest against Shell’s sponsorship of an event at the museum. The film hasn’t quite the cast of characters of At Berkeley, but National Gallery’s aim is more fluid, more dislocated. Wiseman loves to watch visitors admiring paintings as much as the paintings themselves, and that means the only continuum is the gallery itself, its domineering portico entrance a solid foundation against changing times.
Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl