J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Wiseman’s National Gallery

In 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.

Just 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.

However, 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.

As 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.

You 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.


At 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: , ,