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8 January 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:16pm

A view unbroken: the poignancy of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery documentary

The paintings are anything but dry in Frederick Wiseman's documentary about the London gallery.

By Ryan Gilbey

National Gallery (12A)
dir: Frederick Wiseman

Visiting galleries is one thing. Clapping eyes on the art itself can be quite another. The first of many pleasant surprises in National Gallery, the new film by the 85-year-old master documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman, is the unobstructed view afforded to paintings that now seem almost unrecognisable without a pair of gangly, backpacked foreign exchange students locking lips in front of them.

I can measure out my life in afternoons spent with my children combing those square, sober rooms in search of The Big Horse One (Stubbs’s Whistlejacket), The Dragon Eating the Man’s Face (van Haarlem’s Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon) and The Hanging Man with the Bendy Neck (Rosa’s Witches at their Incantations). The appearance of those paintings here presents a chance to see them as if for the first time, naked and unobstructed.

The same goes for the gallery, both as a building and as a concept. The emphasis here is on gentle analysis and deconstruction. Some of that process incorporates the art (there are a couple of beautiful disquisitions on Rubens’s Samson and Delilah). There are hypnotic passages on the process of restoration and cleaning conducted by Larry Keith, who can distinguish between infinite shades of brown. On the most prosaic level, we see a refurbishment job by labourers tearing up the floorboards. Wiseman’s own approach is not so violent. He proceeds fondly, inquisitively, patiently. He is not without wryness – he drops in on a marketing meeting, which, with its multiple uses of the phrase “going forward”, could have been lifted from the BBC2 London Olympics sitcom Twenty Twelve. But his intent is honourable. His film unpicks our relationship with art: its nutritional and philosophical value, its timelessness.

Wiseman’s speciality across his 48-year film-making career has been gradually exposing the workings of public institutions. For the new picture, he shot 170 hours of footage in and around the National Gallery in London over several months, then spent more than a year shaping and editing it into this watchful, illuminating, three-hour life study. We may see figures we recognise: the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, pops up to furrow his brow and resist the potential dilution of his brand, while the art critic and broadcaster Matthew Collings gets snippy with a colleague. But no one is introduced to us and Wiseman doesn’t present any contextualising interviews.

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He has been described as a fly on the wall but this is misleading. A fly is a pest and Wiseman is anything but. He records the sound himself, accompanied by his camera­man and one other crew member. These three move through their chosen spaces in a cloak of invisibility. They sit in on the gallery’s budget meeting. They join a life drawing class and tag along with ebullient tutors and erudite restorers. One guide encourages her group to imagine how the paintings might have looked to their first audience in a chapel, viewed by candlelight that would have made the static figures appear to shimmer and move. Visually impaired visitors are assisted in feeling their way into the paintings through technology that produces tactile representations of works of art. Wiseman performs a similar translation of the abstract idea of art into a tangible reality.

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A gallery, like a school playground, is a space that reveals hidden complexity and poignancy when no one is there. Right from the film’s opening images, showing the empty gallery before the doors have been unlocked, the art is mysteriously alive. The faces in the paintings are the only ones in the film that stare down the camera lens – it’s as if they alone are privy to Wiseman’s presence and their expressions can appear defiant or sorrowful. Frederick Rihel, in Rembrandt’s portrait of him on horseback, stares out snottily from under the brim of his hat, his waxy moustache all but twitching. Once the public trickles in, Wiseman cuts together little volleys of charged looks. The visitors, many locked inside the secret sonic world of their gallery headphones, stare at the paintings. The paintings stare back at them. We witness the whole wordless courtship.

When Wiseman began his directing career in 1967 with Titicut Follies, about a hospital for the criminally insane, he had the black mane and devilish glare of Johnny Cash. Now he is as shrunken and impish as an elf, with a forehead high and wide enough to project films on to. Looking at his work, artfully plain and scrupulously honest, it is possible still to be reminded of Cash and to hear the enduring sentiment of “I Walk the Line”: “I find it very, very easy to be true . . .”