“National Gallery” is as slow and austere as you can expect from a documentary film by Frederick Wiseman, a legendary American documentary director who has established his long, illustrious filmmaking career for nearly 50 years since his first work “Titicut Follies” (1967). While it just seems to look around its subject for 3 hours without any expository or interactive elements we usually expect from many conventional documentary films, this exquisite documentary film gradually lets us sense and follow its subtle but captivating flow of engaging and informative moments, and its whole picture assembled through these wonderful moments comes to us as a vivid, insightful presentation of one of the most valuable art museums in the world.
Its subject is the National Gallery in London, which was built by the British government in 1824 for the 38 paintings purchased from the heirs of John Julius Angerstein, an insurance broker who was also well-known as an art patron. Since its establishment, the museum has built up its considerable reputation as collecting more paintings, and it currently owns around 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900, which put the museum on the prestigious rank belonging to a few other world-famous art museums including the Musée du Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After the opening scene showing the quiet early time in the museum, we soon see its halls and rooms being populated with many visitors during its opening hours. We often listen to their knowledgeable docents’ brief lectures as the camera looks closely at numerous works by various artists such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Velázquez, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Holbein, Rembrandt, Rubens, van Gogh, Seurat, Cézanne, and Turner, and we come to learn a bit about the artistic details and values of these invaluable masterworks, while also marveled by their undeniable beauty which has been preserved for many years.
Although they are not directly introduced to us, several docents in the museum become familiar figures as we see more of their working time throughout the documentary. One guy passionately explains to young curious visitors about how he became interested in art, and, via one very good example, he demonstrates how a painting can convey so many things together. Personally, I was amused by an anecdote behind Holbein’s portrait of a Danish princess who could have been the fourth wife of King Henry VIII of England, and I became more interested in George Stubbs after learning about the painstaking efforts behind his fabulously dynamic painting “Whistlejacket”. Some paintings function as the window to that dark history of slavery during the 19th century, and we are reminded at one point that Angerstein’s enormous fortune, which was the origin of the museum, came from many insurance deals on slave ships.
Meanwhile, the other sections of the museum show us how museums do far more than merely exhibiting artworks on walls and floors. We observe a number of arts classes in the museum, and one of them shows us how the museum tries to reach even to blind people, who may be the last people you can imagine visiting galleries but, believe or not, can appreciate paintings in their own way as shown during one scene. In case of two individual drawing classes, how the students draw their nude model sketch through each own method takes me back to what one docent said before in the documentary: “The reason why I like art rather than math, although they are connected somehow, is that in art, you can be correct in lots of different ways, but in math, you can only really be right once, otherwise you’re wrong.”
Somewhere in the museum, we see a painting frame being carved and decorated, and then we watch several technicians in the conservation laboratory carefully working on the paintings in the need of restoration and preservation. In case of one Rembrandt painting, its restoration process happens to reveal an unexpected secret hidden behind the painting, and this finding wonderfully exemplifies why the restoration of an artwork is not just confined to the simple preservation of how it originally looked from the beginning. Everything from pigment to varnish is thoroughly considered during the restoration process, and we are also reminded that their restoration work is not permanent at all; paintings are bound to be deteriorated right from when they were created, and it is also important to leave some space for the further restoration in the future.
We also look at the occasional administration staff meetings of the museum. While they often disagree with each other due to their different opinions on budget and publicity, they all care a lot about how to run and promote their museum as dedicated professionals, and some of the results from their long, considerate discussions and preparations are shown in the documentary from time to time. A special da Vinci exhibition certainly draws lots of visitors as expected, and we see a long queue of people waiting outside the museum. It is then followed by two respective special exhibitions of Turner and Titian, and we see how these exhibitions contribute to the publicity of the museum while also shedding some new lights on familiar artworks at times. In case of Titian’s two paintings both of which feature Diana the goddess, they form an unmistakable thematic connection between them as being placed together, and this later resonates with a plain but sublime poem recital scene and an unadorned but gorgeous classic ballet performance around the end of the documentary.
Frederick Wiseman was not that familiar to me when I came across “Crazy Horse” (2011) in early 2012, which was about a Paris strip club famous for its colorful nude performances which are both aesthetically and erotically compelling to watch for good reasons. Even without any narration or interview to guide me, many interesting moments in that documentary were presented with underlying curiosity and fascination to engage my mind, and I came to appreciate more of Wiseman’s restrained but thoughtful approach when I later watched “At Berkeley” (2013), an unforgettable documentary film which is a 4-hour visual portrayal of how many things work and interact with each other within the small campus world of the University of California, Berkeley.
Wiseman, who will soon receive an Honorary Oscar for his exceptional lifetime achievement late in this year, did another superb job here in “National Gallery”. After spending 12 hours a day at the museum during almost every day of his 12-week shooting period, he worked on his raw footage amounting to no less than 170 hours, and the final result shown in the film effortlessly immersed me into a long but memorable experience worthy of my 3 hours. I must confess that I have never been to the National Gallery (shame on me!), but Wiseman’s documentary put me there at least during my viewing, and now I want to visit there more than before.