Having read some good reviews, last Sunday I went to watch this documentary by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. At short notice I couldn't find anyone willing to endure three hours so I merrily went on my own and, particularly since I didn't not have to worry about the amount of boredom inflicted to spouse, I really enjoyed it.
The film is somewhere in between a fly-on-the-wall documentary and a photo of a museum by Candida Hofer. Images of paintings and visitors in museum rooms alternate with recordings of gallery talks, board meetings and discussions on conservation.
There is no commentary, no narration, but the film is so self explanatory that there's really no need for it. The images, which I think have been recorded over a number of weeks, suggested to me the flow of a day.
The film opens with the whirring sound of a floor polishing machine and a glimpse of the gallery preparing for the daily opening, proceeds to "spy" on a morning meeting where we see the NG Director Nicholas Penny dealing with marketing issues. As the "day" goes on and we are shown people looking at masterpieces and a few ( too many?) gallery talks to the general public and to children.
It is quite revelatory how images of people queueing in the cold for tickets to the blockbuster Leonardo show precede footing from corporate events evenings, and how the talks become more sophisticated when they address a public of "connoisseurs". Wiseman says his films are "based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions... The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make."
Visits to the "backstage" are very interesting. The team from the conservation studio gives us a taste of the technological department of the Gallery's life, even if they too have to oblige to corporate visitors. The manual ability of the craftsmen painstakingly carving and gilding frames in the silence of some lab is hypnotic, and the care taken with the lighting of a display draws our attention to aspects that we might overlook.
In a couple of shots we see people sketching in front of paintings, and two scenes present the art classes that take place in a frankly quite unsuitable room with a bad lighting and a circle of desks; it's the only time when the film touches on the subject of making paintings and on the museum's role to inspire and engage with artists.
I have never joined one of the group talks from the NG program but having sat through a few during the film I am disappointed at how they (or the editing) focus on the subject and the iconography of the painting; from there we jump directly at the spectrographic analysis of layers by restorers. What happens between the moment the artist chooses the subject and visualises the scene and when we are confronted with the resulting physical object, the act of painting, is not looked at.
Rubens' "Samson and Delilah" is explained as if the artist was a film director or a cinematographer, his main task placing and lighting the figures. Nothing is said about the impossible activity of taking some dust, mix it with oil and applying it to a piece of fabric and make something that is so individual and sublime that nobody can replicate it.
We are told about Titian's paintings and his love for Ovid; we are even read a poem about the nymph Callisto but what about the surface of Titian's paintings, what about his revolutionary contribution to painting ? What about the way in which his teacher's glazing process is forgotten and the sensuousness of his nymphs is found precisely in the sensuousness of his paint, where the matter becomes flesh ?
Speakers in the film seem to be all art historians and the only one who introduces herself as an artist states she is not a painter but makes installations !
"National Gallery" is enjoyable both for people who visit regularly and for those who don't have this privilege, its slow pace leaves the viewer time to think and flavour the atmosphere of the museum.
The attention to the visitors reactions, the slow track-shots in the empty rooms and the enlargements of painted details had made me hope for more, for a film that was enamoured with the deep and mysterious ways in which masterpieces affects us, but this is a long and at times beautiful documentary about the institution and not art itself.