National Gallery opens in typical Wiseman fashion: after a brief shot of the exterior of London’s National Gallery, we see three rooms of the museum, before the camera focuses in on a selection of paintings, shown both in full size and in detail. It is a movement of scale and attention, passing from the macro to the micro – from the cultural monument to the details of the masterworks that have assured its status. It is a characteristic gesture of the director who has made his name scrutinising his subjects from myriad angles, often showing us the workings of institutions and organisations through a probing, egalitarian lens.
National Gallery, the director’s second release in two years (following At Berkeley)1, is certainly a continuation of this tradition, and by and large a continuation of the director’s working habits. Wiseman and his crew spent twelve weeks in the gallery in 2012, during which time he amassed 170 hours of footage. As always for Wiseman, the film is created in the edit: the director determines both a structure that speaks to his encounter with the institution, while also selecting the footage that he finds the most interesting.
Clearly, what is of most interest for Wiseman about the gallery as an institution seems to be above all the paintings themselves, particularly those by the Old Masters that the gallery has built its formidable reputation on. This is a slightly different approach to the one taken in At Berkeley, which tended to focus much more on the behind the scenes aspect of the university, frequently placing us in situ at faculty meetings and budgetary discussions. We do see some of this side of the institution’s operation in National Gallery; there is a memorable passage where the museum’s staff discusses whether they should allow Sports Relief (a charity raising funds from participants of the London marathon) to advertise with a large banner that would adorn the front of the gallery. There’s a telling end to the scene, as the museum director argues against advertising on the grounds that there should be some kind of link between what is being advertised and the site used for the advertisement. He points out that at football matches, the sideboards surrounding the stadium are advertising football boots, not Picasso and Goya. By the same token, this disparity between the audience of the advertising and that of the gallery does little but make the institution look “strapped for cash.” The gallery has strived to hold on to its image as guardian of the masters of painting, and Wiseman accordingly makes them the focus of his film.
We see a coterie of experts, ranging from conservationists to frame craftsman, whose job it is to ensure these paintings’ passage through history. There is an admirable dedication to detail and craft, and it is quite touching to hear these people talk about their work as ensuring that the paintings outlive their own time on earth. Wiseman gives a considerable amount of screen time to one particularly charismatic conservation expert speaking about the complex and fascinating history of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Hedel to a group of art historians, complete with X-Ray scans revealing a kind of forensic study on the painting’s progressive development. Segments like this are doubly interesting in that we learn a great deal about the works on display in the gallery while also seeing a kind of double performance: one for their “official” audience and one for the camera. A similar performative dichotomy is at play in the multiple tour guides we’re privy to, designed for young children, high school students, and adults alike. During these tour guides, one gets a thought-provoking survey of the variety of ways that paintings are made vital and interesting to audiences across different generations.2
One of National Gallery’s strengths surely lies in the opportunity it gives its audience to see these paintings on the big screen (if you are lucky enough to see this in the cinema). The number of flat out masterworks that are shown is quite remarkable: Leonardo’s Madonna on the Rocks, Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah are just some of the highlights of the flabbergasting collection. Perhaps even more valuable for the art fanatic are the careful close-ups of details from paintings, particularly of key narrative elements. There is an interesting meeting of media here when Wiseman animates these narrative signifiers in the paintings, cutting the story together using the added temporal aspect available only to cinema.
While it is a minor step down from last year’s wonderful At Berkeley – Wiseman is at his best when chiefly focusing on people and interpersonal drama – fans of the director’s work will surely appreciate National Gallery as the delicate and quietly intelligent film it is.
Around the Staff: