12 October 2014
London

Frederick Wiseman’s wonderful documentary National Gallery pays tribute to and quietly critiques one of the UK’s cultural treasures.

One of the great joys of living in London is having access to some of the greatest art collections in the world. The jewel in London’s crown is the National Gallery, which sits regally at the north end of Trafalgar Square, housing some of the greatest paintings in the Western European canon. The NG attracts over 5 million visitors a year, many of them from out of London. For locals, it’s a marvellous kind of drop-in centre, since its free entry allows for repeat visits. There’s something rather glorious about having half an hour to kill on a Saturday afternoon and popping in to take another look at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or study the soft golden light of Vermeer’s interiors, or the wrinkles in the faces of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Alas, the NG, like so many other London attractions, often runs the risk of being taken for granted, or viewed contemptuously as a slightly naff tourist trap.

Frederick Wiseman’s wonderful documentary, titled National Gallery, is a quiet corrective to that glib attitude. Paced at a leisurely three hours, it’s an in-depth survey of the extraordinary treasure-house of paintings that the NG houses and the great work done by its staff in community education and art restoration. It’s also a wry and often humorous look at the peculiarities of an institution that attempts to be the guardian of high culture and a responsible trustee of public funds, while also trying to engage with contemporary audiences in a digitised age.

Wiseman is one of the patriarchs of modern documentary film. His quiet, observational style, free from voiceover, interviews or any obvious narrative, favours long stationary camera shots and a contemplative view of his subjects. His editing is crisp and often pointed – as an old school leftie, he’s especially interested in turning the audience’s attention towards the marginalised folk hovering at the edge of his frame – but mostly he allows situations to speak for themselves, and lets his viewers draw their own conclusions.

Wiseman’s less-is-more style is perfect for a study of the National Gallery, a place where people are able to look and observe in silence. Even with signs and placards and tour guides directing visitors’ attention, galleries are intensely private spaces, where each visitor shapes their own experience. Wiseman understands this implicitly, and much of National Gallery features long unhurried close-ups of paintings – especially portraits – intercut with close-ups of patrons looking intently at the works. Mostly, the patrons stay silent, and their experience of the gallery remains a mystery to us. This is puzzling at first, and seems counter-intuitive for a documentary, whose purpose is primarily to reveal. But eventually this becomes rather fine, as Wiseman creates sufficient space between his viewers and the world of the gallery to allow some thinking and breathing space.

Most of Wiseman’s documentaries are about institutions (universities, supermarkets, dance companies), in which he ponders the significance of why public spaces exist. Though he doesn’t pose any answers to what the National Gallery’s purpose is, he spends a considerable amount of time chronicling what and how the Gallery’s employees choose to answer that question. In an early sequence, Wiseman films a polite but deeply tense meeting between Gallery director Nicholas Penny and head of communications Jill Preston about how the Gallery should advertise itself. Preston argues, ever so politely, that the Gallery is too reluctant to advertise its many educational programmes, and needs to focus more on the needs of its users. Penny, a traditionalist who looks as though he’s just woken up from a long nap in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, recoils at Preston’s references to “end users” and “customer experience”, and murmurs in his cut-glass accent about the dangers of appealing to “the lowest common denominator”. And therein lies the fault line at the heart of the Gallery’s existence – should it hold itself apart from fashion and continue to safeguard the treasures of European high culture, or should it adopt a more commercial business model and focus on supply and demand?

Fortunately for us, Wiseman doesn’t answer the question – at least not directly. He chronicles many of the good works done by the Gallery – art appreciation classes for the blind, life drawing sessions, lectures for school art teachers, restoration of old and damaged works. These events are mostly not known about or advertised to the general public, confirming Preston’s point that the Gallery isn’t that good at marketing its assets.

On closer study, it’s easy to see why not. Wiseman observes the exotic and mostly introverted beasts who populate the Gallery’s rarefied world. Technicians work silently in windowless rooms, painstakingly cleaning paintings and applying gold leaf to picture frames. Curators and installers adjust overhead lighting bit by bit to try and reduce shadows falling across a box framed triptych. Curators explain the challenges in restoring Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, which has an earlier painting hidden beneath. Art historians debate whether the sheet music glimpsed in Watteau’s The Scale of Love is based on a real composition. It’s work that requires precision, patience, years of training and obsessive attention to detail – none of them qualities that immediately endear themselves to “the customer experience”. Wiseman doesn’t offer any judgments about the Gallery staff, though he notes that the world they live in, charming though it may be, is (and perhaps needs to be) removed from the real world.

Some of the film’s greatest moments come from extended takes of the Gallery tour guides, who offer daily in-depth looks at some of the greatest works in the permanent collection. It’s here that we see the Gallery staff coming out of their shell and engaging with the visitors. While the guides are careful not to impose definitive interpretations on the paintings they discuss, the depth of their knowledge and insight into the paintings, and their passion in communicating their love of the work, is a great pleasure to watch. As we listen to the guides explaining the ambiguity of the duplicitous Delilah’s body language in Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, or the possible meaning of the anamorphic skull at the bottom of Holbein’s double portrait The Ambassadors, we’re reminded of the rewards that come from paying close and thoughtful attention to a piece of art.

There are no villains in National Gallery, although Penny comes close to being the film’s unwitting court jester. At another management meeting, he bristles in horror at the offer of a sports sponsorship deal to coincide with the London Marathon finishing in Trafalgar Square. “We weren’t consulted”, he says sniffily, like a bridesmaid not asked to dance at the wedding. He pops up again to introduce Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf to a bunch of well-heeled looking patrons, where he reveals something of his elitist sensibilities. Poussin’s painting was, he says, a response to a then-contemporary artistic debate about the relative virtues of sculpture to painting, and therefore a piece only able to be understood by the monied elite who were Poussin’s patrons. “I’m pleased a painting like this is in the National Gallery” he says, in a rather unconvincing nod towards the merits of public ownership. Later, he appears much more at ease introducing a private patron and his jewel-encrusted wife to Titian’s Diana and Callisto, showing off his knowledge about the provenance of the painting, and making innuendos about the bedroom habits of its former owner the Duc d’Orleans. This is, we sense, where Penny would much rather be: consorting with the wealthy patrons who know how to behave properly, and protecting the collection from the grubby-fingered parvenus in the gift store.

Wiseman has always been a subtle reader of class differences in his films. In National Gallery, he has less scope to observe class differences, since the documentary seldom leave the walls of the building. Nonetheless, he takes time to observe the workers who clean and provide security for the Gallery and serve drinks to wealthy air-kissing patrons at exhibition opening parties. It’s also striking how few non-white visitors the Gallery receives (or at least it received back in the winter of 2012, when the documentary was shot). Apart from the occasional school visit, there are few people of colour among the crowds, and none at all among the staff, which seems shocking, given the size of the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities living in London. There’s another unsettling moment when one of the more politically right-on tour guides reminds a school group that much of the Gallery’s collection was built from the profits of the slave trade.

Despite its leisurely running time, National Gallery can’t claim to be a comprehensive view of the Gallery, and it’s only afterwards that Wiseman’s narrative choices reveal themselves. There’s nothing about how the Gallery acquires new works or decides what exhibitions to mount. Wiseman, who is 84, is clearly more interested in the older works in the collection. He returns frequently to Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and De Vinci, whereas the Impressionists get barely five minutes’ attention towards the end of the film.

In the end, National Gallery provides a precisely-observed and mostly generous view of a strange, unwieldy organisation whose formidable cultural legacy sits uneasily with our modern market-driven world. To the extent that Wiseman has a point of view, I think it is one of respect and profound gratitude that such a collection even exists in one place and can be visited so easily. We finish with a prolonged close-up of Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the age of 63 – a masterpiece by an Old Master, and an example of the benefits of paying long and close attention to a familiar subject. Wiseman’s film embodies Rembrandt’s lesson perfectly, and makes another quiet masterpiece in the process.

After the film finished, I walked along the South Bank and across the Hungerford Bridge and into Charing Cross. The National Gallery was open for a couple more hours before its Sunday afternoon closing time. As always, it was filled with backpack-wearing tourists and weary looking families pushing baby buggies. I slipped into the Impressionists gallery, and made a brief genuflection to Van Gogh, Monet and Seurat, and then went in search of Sampson & Delilah. It was a painting I’d walked past many times before and not given too much attention to, other than to admire the muscularity of Sampson’s arms or the gravity-defying angle of Delilah’s breasts. Thanks to the narrative recorded in Wiseman’s film, the artistry and drama of the painting was revealed to me. I went off in search of the Vermeers, which live in smaller rooms, better suited to quiet contemplation (though the rooms must get unpleasant when tour groups descend). I ended in the Rembrandt room, sitting in front of Self Portrait at the age of 63. I was reminded, again, of what a treasure trove of cultural riches exist in London, available for anyone to see free of charge, and how lucky I am to live here. I’m grateful to Mr Wiseman for nudging me to sit up and pay attention.

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