National Gallery, which premiered last month at the New York Film Festival, is the most recent of Frederick Wiseman’s 40-plus documentaries that feature single institutions. Wiseman’s previous subjects have included a state mental hospital for the criminally insane (Titicut Follies, 1967), a public housing project in Chicago’s South Side (Public Housing, 1997), and Paris’s most celebrated erotic dance venue (Crazy Horse, 2011). In National Gallery, Wiseman tackles a more staid institution: the Trafalgar Square museum that houses the United Kingdom’s public collection of paintings. The film focuses on this collection: works by Titian, Vermeer, van Eyck, Seurat, Monet, Rubens, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Botticelli, Leonardo, Caravaggio, and Michelangelo, among others. These paintings, which determine the core narrative of the film, aren’t shown as completely static objects; they are entities whose gazes record, judge, fool, and smile upon their viewers. National Gallery seeks to similarly animate other elements of the institution, capturing the experiences of both staff and visitors.
Throughout his career, Wiseman’s style has remained consistent — broadly, cinéma vérité, or direct cinema. These terms, however, connote a “fly-on-the-wall” approach to narrative that might also suggest an equality of focus. In contrast, Wiseman exhibits a discriminating eye; he often concentrates on a couple of characters and institutional activities while completely ignoring others. Both camera and editing follow his sensibilities. Incomprehensive information is perhaps a natural byproduct of direct cinema, considering the lack of interviews for clear explication and of voiceover to shape narrative and fill in background information. But Wiseman’s films are more than simply representative of their style; each obliquely documents the director’s personal experience of an institution.
In National Gallery it’s clear that Wiseman was captivated by the tour guides; a large part of the film is given over to their unique presentations on particular artworks. In an especially moving sequence, a guide discusses Rubens’s “Samson and Delilah” (1609–10). Asking viewers to empathize with Delilah, the guide explains that she has been sent to seduce Samson, ruler of a warring nation, and thereby enable his capture. She does so out of patriotic duty. But what if Delilah, during her seduction and the ensuing consummation of the relationship, has fallen for Samson? In Rubens’s painting, Delilah protectively rests her arm on Samson’s back, looking at him tenderly. But she also leans away from him, evoking a psychological distance. Soldiers lurk behind a partially opened door, ready to take the sleeping Samson away. The guide suggests to her audience that Delilah feels a mix of love and terrible guilt. The camera cuts seamlessly between details of the painting, the guide’s presentation, and the emotional expressions of the visitors.
Common sense might suggest that filming paintings produces three potential outcomes: an opportunity of appreciation for those not able to see the works in bodily proximity; a misguided attempt to capture a physical reality that ends as bad imitation; an experiment that uses art as a vehicle to ultimately make a statement about the medium of film. National Gallery, although it does offer appreciation from afar, does not, incredibly, fit into any of the above categories. Instead, Wiseman has made a film that both chronicles the daily workings of the institution — we are privy to staff meetings, conservation, and gallery installation — and also, fundamentally, focuses on the intensity of the relationship between paintings and people: visitors camp overnight in rainy London to gain entrance to the show Leonardo: The Studio Tour; children look on in amazement as guides explain the relevance of art; frequent museumgoers explain their favorite paintings to friends; adults listen, emotions visible, as guides tell stories; conservationists demonstrate their passion and craft. But the most incredible moments of National Gallery are Wiseman’s close-ups, particularly of the painted faces. He manages to use the camera to suggest, without any allusion to a cliché of magic, that the paintings are looking back, somehow chronicling or cataloguing, their effect on viewers over the centuries.