today’s world, a museum should not merely function as a repository of great
works of art, but should also serve as a center of cultural life. Yet, it must still
uphold its elite standards. The National Gallery seems to be walking that line relatively
skillfully from what we can glean during Frederick Wiseman’s latest institutional
documentary. He quietly observes the docent talks, art classes, and musical
performances programmed in the venerable museum, as well as the sometimes
contentious staff meetings behind-the-scenes in National Gallery (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.
so there is no confusion, this is the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square in
London, not the National Gallery of Art on the Washington DC Mall. As Wiseman’s
period of documentation commences, the museum is in the final days of a
blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, but must plan with some trepidation for a
road race that will end right in front of their building. While their marketing
head considers it a potential opportunity, NG director Nicholas Penny is highly
skeptical. Throughout the film, he serves as the advocate of tradition and
decorum, conservatively defined.
there are many more voices in National
Gallery, due to its educational mandate. From various sources, we learn
about masterworks by da Vinci, J.M.W. Turner, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Velazquez,
and Titian (the subject of their next significant exhibition), and the
challenges of curating at such a lofty level. While some viewers might prefer
to watch Sister Wendy reruns if they want an art history fix, it is certainly
more approachable than listening to Idaho’s legislators debate land use in
Wiseman’s State Legislature. In fact,
it is all quite fascinating for anyone interested in fine art, thanks to the
quality of NG staff and the remarkable collection they have assembled.
a result, Wiseman’s National Gallery has
a livelier tone than the obvious recent comparison film, Oeke Hoogendijk’s four
hour-plus New Rijksmuseum, even
though the Dutch documentary captures much more pressing drama as it unfolds.
In contrast, Wiseman simply presents an all-access visit to the museum, but it
is a pleasant one.
have to wonder how much convincing it took Penny to open up the museum to
Wiseman and his crew, but he clearly grew accustomed to their presence. He and
the entire curatorial and docent staff come across as highly trained and rather
eloquent professionals. Ironically though, Wiseman and his films probably have
an even more elite following than the NG, but his fans should all be primed for
a return visit after viewing this cinematic immersion.
a mere three hours, National Gallery is
rather economical compared to some of Wiseman’s prior works. The subject matter
also helps. Like his dance films, Crazy Horse and La Danse, there are
plenty of hooks here for the audience to grab onto. Recommended for Wiseman
admirers and patient patrons of the arts, National
Gallery opens this Wednesday (11/5) in New York at Film Forum.
Labels: Documentary, Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery