National Gallery (2014)

Posted: January 25, 2015 in Documentary
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Country: France / USA / UK

Runtime: 180 mins

In Skyfall, James Bond sits at the National Gallery and studies Turner’s famous masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire. Shortly afterwards he is joined by Q, who in this incarnation is a computer whizz. Even before any dialogue occurs between the two, the question raised by the scenario is clear: is Bond even relevant in the contemporary world of hacking and electronic eavesdropping? Or, like HMS Temeraire, is he only fit for the scrapyard?

As it happens, one of the paintings that features in Frederick Wiseman’s masterly documentary, National Gallery, is in fact a spy story. One of the gallery’s guides explains to her audience that Rubens’ picture Samson and Delilah depicts a crucial ambiguity in the countenance of Delilah as she holds a sleeping post-coital Samson. Delilah, a kind of female Bond in the Bible, has been paid by the Philistines to seduce Samson in order to discover the source of his strength. As Samson sleeps, a servant prepares to cut off his hair, whilst a group of Philistines wait at the door in preparation to arrest the weakened man. But Delilah herself, in her seduction of Samson, has developed feelings for him. This is reflected in the tender look on her face as she gazes down on him. One hand gently caresses his face, but her other hand – reflecting the duality of the situation – is more rigidly posed.

This is just one of many paintings whose inner meanings are revealed to us by knowledgeable gallery staff, one of whom explains to a group of children that all paintings tell a story. Some paintings are more mysterious than others in terms of their interpretations. One notable example is Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with its anamorphous skull (although this object itself we are told, unlike many devices used in paintings, only ever means one thing – death).

At three hours in length, National Gallery, requires the kind of patience with which one must explore a gallery or museum. But the film really is quite a revelation, displaying the working life of the gallery’s staff in fascinating detail. Most of the scenes fall into one of three categories: educational activities of one sort or another, restoration work being applied to damaged artworks, and business meetings of senior staff. In terms of education, this goes beyond merely guiding visitors around key works. We also see a class of visually-impaired people exploring touch-versions of Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night, groups of people attending life-drawing classes, and students attending lectures.

Elsewhere, restorers – often wearing special magnifying goggles – chip flecks off of damaged paintings and place them on slides to be inspected under microscopes. They dab away at tiny portions of artworks, adding either paint or varnish – and there is some detailed explanation of the effects of different types of paints and varnishes (apparently, different varnishes can affect colour differently, just like filters on a camera lens). We are told that some past restorations haven’t always been entirely helpful, but that the modern principle is that any additions by restorers must be removable. In one magnificent instance an X-ray of a painting reveals a second picture beneath the first.

Behind the scenes we get a few snapshots of the difficult decisions that need to be made, balancing the artistic goals of the gallery with the harsh economic realities that must be faced. At one point senior staff discuss whether they should allow Sport Relief to project an image onto the front of the gallery. Many such requests are received but are turned down, as the gallery -itself a charitable institution – attempts to maintain its distinctive character rather than be used as an advertising billboard for every worthy cause. However, in this instance it seems that Westminster Council has arranged for the square just outside the gallery to be used as a finishing point for a marathon (without consulting the gallery). Thus, the gallery staff debate whether they should just accept this as a fait accompli and go along with the projection idea as a way of advertising themselves. On the other hand, they are successful enough that they don’t really need to advertise themselves, the marathon itself will inevitably stop visitors coming into the gallery, and agreeing to the projection might set a precedent.

Another discussion revolves around money, as a budget for the coming year has to be set in the context of a substantially reduced grant contribution. At this point reality comes crashing in. Since National Gallery was completed, plans have been announced to privatise hundreds of staff – with the obvious implications for their terms and conditions – and the Director Nicholas Penny, and several other managers, have announced their resignations. The Director of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery has also announced his resignation. Of course, even the necessity for commercial sponsorship of exhibitions brings with it the risk of adverse publicity, and at one point we watch as Greenpeace activists scale the front of the gallery and release a banner protesting against sponsorship from Shell because of their role in oil exploration in the Arctic.

As if to emphasize the sense of foreboding aroused by the budget discussions, Wiseman takes us next to a discussion of Turner’s painting The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, whereby a guide explains how the artist was concerned with the broader theme of empires rising and falling, which obviously included the British Empire. Decline in this picture is symbolised by a vivid setting sun. Sunset evokes change in the next painting considered, which is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

But rather than leave us on a negative note, the final third of National Gallery takes us through a range of other pictures, classes, and restoration activities without any obvious political connotations. Throughout the film the camera also roams across the visitors themselves: people lost in contemplation, sleeping, sketching, young men romantically nuzzling the cheeks of their girlfriends, and classes of schoolchildren listening attentively to the ever-knowledgeable guides. On the evidence presented here, the senior staff at the National Gallery have an enviable gender balance that is not matched in many organisations, although they are overwhelmingly white (I don’t think I saw any non-white faces). Similarly, the visitors themselves – like the subjects of nearly all the Gallery’s paintings – appeared to be mostly white, with the notable exception of some of the school classes who were visiting. One group of schoolchildren is actually told by a guide that the collection they are viewing was financed largely by the results of slavery, the one point in the film where any issue of ethnic diversity is mentioned.

There is no voiceover narration to National Gallery and none of the staff who appear are actually named. This is an approach that works well, as all the speaking that is needed is done by the people onscreen. Frederick Wiseman has put together a quite extraordinary documentary. I felt it was three hours well spent.

Rating: 5/5

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