Scene from “National Gallery” by Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery

With the newly announced reopening of London’s galleries and institutions, admirers of the National Gallery will find themselves anxiously awaiting to tour the museum again. Until then, the celebrated documentation by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman might provide some relief. In “National Gallery” (2014) the acclaimed director created a mesmerising visual survey of the British institution.

As one of the most significant collections of paintings in the world, the National Gallery is also one of the most visited museums worldwide. Located in the heart of London, its neo- classical building has watched over Trafalgar Square since 1897. Today, it houses an impressive display of over 2300 paintings of all Western European art movements ranging from late medieval and Renaissance Italy to the French Impressionists. Some of its masterpieces include Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” (ca. 1491-1506) and “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) by Jan van Eyck and Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888).

Whilst its impressive display of paintings is the main attraction for millions of visitors every year, acclaimed filmmaker Frederick Wiseman offers various alternative perspectives into the behind-the-scenes of a large-scale institution of this kind. Wiseman is known for his observant, fly on the wall, style of documentarian film making. His most prominent productions include “Welfare” (1975), a gripping documentary released in the mid-1970s concerned with how municipal offices in New York operate. The film painfully captures the politically and psychologically corrupt American welfare systems and echoes an existential crisis that is still present in the US today.

Scene from “National Gallery” by Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman’s productions continuously shine a light on and expose institutional structures that are mostly American-based. In “National Gallery” (2014) however, the filmmaker shifts his focus to the long-standing and at times controversial existence of the British National Gallery. Filmed between mid-January and mid-March in 2012, during the museum’s unprecedented exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, Wiseman spent 12 weeks filming all departments of the museum.

“National Gallery shows the relationship between different forms – painting, poetry, film – they all have the same concerns. Most paintings in the National Gallery tell a story. Movies also tell a story.”
(Frederick Wiseman)

The three-hour-long result very much reflects the director’s typical approach to documentarian film making. With a steady camera as a silent observer, the focus of each scene is concentrated on the conversations that are happening in front of the camera.

The lack of any sound, voice-over, musical score or sound effects, transports the viewer into every presented situation, demanding all the attention. The generally long scenes fluctuate between depictions of mundane bureaucracy, tense meetings, workshops, life drawing classes, guided tours, exciting conservation and restoration methodology and at times, in between the sequences, the paintings of the gallery.

Scenes from “National Gallery” by Frederick

When filming the paintings of the gallery, Wiseman approached this task in favour of the viewer. In an interview with the magazine “Interview”, the director explained:

“I would shoot inside the frame of the painting. Because that way, the painting became much more alive. It became less of an object. If you’re inside the frame, then—particularly with the Renaissance paintings, with paintings before the 20th century—you can use the technique of movies to tell the story of the painting. You can break the painting down into sequences. For me, one of the subtexts or themes of National Gallery was: How do you tell a story? How do you tell a story in a movie? In a painting? In a poem? In a ballet? All that’s in the film.”
(Frederick Wiseman)

Moments of controversy are related by Wiseman as moments of disruption for the museum. Midway through the film, the image quietly cuts to a protest outside and on top of the National Gallery’s building, staged by Greenpeace in response to the institution’s long- standing relation with the oil giant Shell. The museum’s history and connection with the transatlantic slave trade is also briefly mentioned through the scene of a tour guide, introducing the museum as one that was founded and established through the wealth of figures such as John Julius Angerstein, who worked as “insurer of slave boats”. Other scenes of the day to day museum tasks are additionally interrupted by tense business meetings with the board and directors. Here lively conversations about art history are juxtaposed with unpleasant discussions about the museum’s pr strategies, the director’s vehement concern of the growing commercialisation of the museum and overall slightly snobbish attitudes.

The New York Times once referred to Wiseman as the filmmaker who shows us ourselves. Wiseman lets the viewers experience for themselves. Much like the National Gallery invests in creating inclusive spaces for its viewers to be able to immerse themselves and understand art and its history in their own way, this documentary will engage everyone differently.

Cardi Gallery invites you to explore the depths of the large scale institution and view the documentary, available to rent from the British Film Institute (https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-national-gallery-2014-online), or for free access with a public library card on Kanopy (https://www.kanopy.com/product/national-gallery-0).