“A painting,” one of the lecturers in National Gallery explains carefully, “has the speed of light to tell you a story.” He’s comparing a painting to a film or a novel, which has hours or weeks to impress itself upon your consciousness with multiple scenes, whereas a painting has one shot to get it right. It’s a neatly tuned insight, and a humorous one for the incredibly patient documentarian Frederick Wiseman to include in his film three-hour film about Britain’s National Gallery. For Wiseman, whose style doesn’t tell a story so much as it assembles hundreds of discrete moments and into a broadly humanistic portrait of an institution, is not one to let everything rely on a single shot. He is going to cover his subject, and then some, and then cover it some more just in case.
National Gallery follows the Wiseman style, its sprawling and octopus-like nature weaving the everyday with the sublime. The film starts and ends with a flutter of stills showing highlights from the Gallery’s 2400-odd paintings; heavy on the Masters, with a spray of Impressionism, lots of Turner. It’s a feast in and of itself. Wiseman then moves into the business of day-to-day work at the Gallery, which occupies a grand position on the north side of Trafalgar Square. That includes everything from the workers waxing the floors and dusting to the administrators quietly arguing in conference rooms to the tour guides explaining the holdings to some of the five-plus million visitors who come through the doors every year.
Those tour guides provide the film with much of its intellectual heft and flights of fancy. Without preamble, Wiseman’s camera enters their talk in progress, sometimes not even identifying the work in question. The approach varies from one guide to the next. One talks in learned fashion to a crowd who are clearly art appreciators, explicating fine points of technique. Another might amplify the story behind a work (such as the guide who fills in the backstory for Rubens’ Samson and Delilah with appropriately melodramatic flourishes) for a more tourist-heavy group.
In the Gallery’s restoration workshops, there’s a deeper appreciation for the art hanging silently on those brightly-colored walls. In one long, particularly beautiful scene, we watch a restorer patiently bring a shine back to a surprisingly grime-covered painting simply by brushing it with a cotton swab dipped in a clear solution. Another restorer talks about a massive Rembrandt portrait being cleaned up, showing a scan revealing that the master had not only painted over another portrait but that elements of that first painting were showing through in the current one. It’s a small revelation but a fascinating one, which the film seems to keep alluding to with its recurring shots of visitors peering close and trying to discern meaning, intent, and story from oil and canvas.
National Gallery lies in the middle of Wiseman’s recent investigations into significant institutions. (A phenomenal film in that line which he could never make: State Department.) It’s far less intellectually engaging than last year’s At Berkeley, which was like taking a crash course in educational theory, and not as rhythmically attuned as the visually poetic Boxing Gym. Wiseman is interested in the Gallery itself as a thing, and does show some instances of debate in the back offices, with some back and forth over budgets and how to balance its status as primo tourist destination and curator of national treasures.
But the film is more a slow, sneaky, and occasionally droning tone poem about art itself, how it’s viewed and why. Too much of National Gallery is a one-way process; with experts lecturing to quiet groups. This might be a fairly accurate representation of how many museums are experienced, but it never quite captures that ineffable everyday magic Wiseman’s better films have always managed to bottle up and present for wondering eyes.