VIDEO: In Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, All Artworks Are Riveting

The filmmaker's newest documentary peers into the 190-year-old London institution.


The above trailer for National Gallery, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the 190-year-old London art museum, is best described as tantalizing. Despite its rapid montages, it offers a cautiously conservative–distinctly non-polemical–glimpse of Wiseman’s 183-minute film, which he culled from the 170 hours he shot in the building’s hallowed labyrinths between mid-January and mid-March 2012.

The full-length movie focuses on many of the great works in the museum, concentrating on them as images rather than as framed objets: “The guiding principle was to break the frame,” Wiseman said in an interview this April.

Wiseman-watchers will know he set himself a wider brief than merely celebrating the National Gallery’s encyclopedic “Giotto to Cezanne” collection. The filmmaker’s typically rigorous observational style and eschewing of talking heads impose no editorial commentary on his subjects, which have ranged from a hospital for the criminally insane (Titicut Follies, 1967) to campus life (At Berkeley, 2013). Wiseman’s nuanced editing, though, suggests ways in which audiences may process the material he assembles, wrynesses included.

In National Gallery, museumgoers—some more engaged than others—look at the paintings, and tour guides hold forth. Restorers and experts toil behind the scenes and grapple with the ethical issues of their work. It’s disclosed that the museum was partially funded by an auction of the collection of the doomed Louis Phillipe, Duke of Orléans, after the French Revolution, and partially by profits from the slave trade.

Wiseman’s crew drops in on executive meetings in which spending cuts are discussed and the director, Dr. Nicholas Perry, resists a marketing impetus that would benefit a Sport Relief charity event and show the museum’s friendly face but clash with its august reputation.

Representing the art—and probing the mutable impressions the pictures leave when viewed more than once—was apparently more important to Wiseman than museum business and personnel conflicts. As the 84-year-old director said of his 42nd film, “. . . to my mind, the paintings were much more interesting than internal conflicts or politicking. There is not a single human experience that is not covered by the artworks, and in greater depth than any exposé of power struggles within the institution could achieve. The paintings contain something of everything. From cruelty to tenderness, it’s all there!”

National Gallery will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, which opens September 4, and the New York Film Festival, which opens September 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It will play at Film Forum in New York City November 5–18.

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