It is difficult to condense an 180-minute film into a few thoughts.
National Gallery is an ungodly protracted documentary about the day-to-day running of this institution. The film revolves indiscriminately around the people working at the gallery, from the board of directors, to the frame makers, to security guards. Through this succession of different jobs, we imagine a self-sufficient web of people and pieces – and everything that comes between them.
The board meetings are a fascinating, if not necessarily edifying, view of the top dogs. Questions of exclusivity versus accessibility in light of budgetary considerations are discussed at meetings; there are lots of meetings. The decisions that establishments have to make in order to grip the public’s interest are not easy – what lengths do they go to attract visitors, and at what price to their institution? The epitome of the traditional comes from the director, who spends twenty minutes arguing that charities should not be able to project their logos on the façade of the gallery at the end of the London Marathon – because it whores out the institution’s walls to what he sees as advertising.
We pay visits to restorers scraping away tiny slivers of paint with scalpels, Q-tips, eye-droppers. We mark the fragility of time’s passing on art realising that there are effects that you have to live with, and guard against, but ultimately methodical technical intervention will be called upon to ‘save’ the work from ageing and deterioration.
Ethical problems and compromises come into question. The question of lighting the frame of a newly-purchased triptych held me spellbound: there is a shadow that obscures the top 1/4 of the painting. This, again, is in no way edifying for the Gallery. The entirety of Christ’s head is hidden, and we hear the director say: ‘it’ll have to do’. Listening to Nicholas Penny, the rumpled-haired Museum Director in a lecture taking a stab at Poussin – admitting that he is not sure if he likes the work, but is always intrigued by it, is brilliant.
The camera whips us outside the Museum to see the community waiting patiently in the cold to see the Da Vinci exhibition ‘Painter at the Court of Milan’ (2012). We are never far away from the human response to art – the intensity of the onlooker’s gaze, the curiosity, confusion, delight, horror and interior peace that art can inculcate.
Wiseman just lets his camera roll; he never uses voice overs. The filmmaker is always invisible – others, never him, conduct interviews. The interviewees never look once into the camera, most probably because they are looking at a camera that is not actually filming, while a hidden one (probably an iPhone or handheld camera) is doing the actual work. Frederick Wiseman allows us to be the fly on the wall in a usually bug-proof space. The film could have been edited on iMovie; indeed the font used in the credits is an iMovie font. It is brilliantly simple.
The painstaking process of running a gallery, shown to us in miniature in a three-hour film, perhaps also laughing behind the screen at us, that we are struggling to sit in cinema seats for three hours, while there are people scraping off paint millimetres at a time.
Each job, as basic as it might seem, is important and they all work fluidly together. Each artwork has a presence with an individual history and personal narrative imprinted on its essence – and like life itself this documentary is thrilling, enigmatic, complex and a singular jewel in the crown of documentaries.