A Revered Institution (And the National Gallery Is Important Too)

Frederick Wiseman, NYC, 11/5/14

Frederick Wiseman, NYC, 11/5/14

Frederick Wiseman, undisputedly one of cinema’s masters, has followed up last year’s “At Berkeley,” a view of a great public university at a time of dwindling/disputed resources, with his 39th documentary, a tour of the workings of London’s National Gallery (not without its own money issues).

“National Gallery” opens with a gorgeous montage of faces from the museum’s collection of Western masterpieces from the Middle Ages to the 19th century (Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Titian, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, Velázquez).  Then a quiet shot of a worker buffing the floor, followed by faces of museum-goers looking at the work.

Wiseman who shot for 12 weeks (with few days off), examines how the staff realizes its concern to build a bridge between, as one lecturer calls it, “the mystery around what the artist intended,” and the viewing experience of the audience, how the pictures speak to people through time.  And the viewing at the National Gallery is immediate, unmediated by digital devices, which are forbidden.

The filmmaker follows docents and curators in the galleries, attends lectures for teachers, life drawing classes, staff meetings.  Wiseman shows single works and exhibitions being installed, and paintings being restored, with not only tremendous technical skill but restraint, a deep reluctance to impose contemporary materials (and esthetics) on centuries-old work.

In a fascinating sequence, that involves both restoration and the proper lighting of work in the galleries, a staff member discusses that before electricity, paintings were made for where they were to be hung and the light they would have, and that an area of a painting that might appear as if it’s darkened over time, was made to glow in the light of a fireplace.

Asked by an interviewer how he approached filming the paintings, Wiseman answered, “It’s an exceedingly complex issue, especially bearing in mind the large number of artworks…I used an approach similar to making a film, alternating between wide shots and close-ups, and then working on the depth of field in the paintings. On film, the painting comes to life if you don’t see the wall, frame, or card to one side with the artist’s name, title, date and technical details…My aim was to suggest that the painting is alive and tells a story all of its own.”

“National Gallery” opens today at Film Forum for a two-week run, with Frederick Wiseman in person at the 7:50 pm show today and on Friday, November 7, and at 4:15 pm on Saturday, November 8.

I photographed art installations (and artists) for The Village Voice for 20+ years, often working when the gallery or museum was closed.  I always liked being alone with the work, sometimes it was thrilling.  But the unmatched adrenalin experience was shooting “Picasso and the Weeping Women” at the Met for Peter Schjeldahl’s column.  He had requested details of the paintings–eyes, mouths, noses–and I complied, shooting  these extreme close-ups,  just a few inches from each painting, camera on a tripod, me on a stepladder.

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