The veteran American documentarian Frederick Wiseman likes to point his camera at institutions and try to document the way that they work (or don’t work, as the case may be). His previous film, At Berkeley was set at the University of California, Berkeley, and dwelt a lot on the bickering of its board members about various minutiae of academic life — moreso, it sometimes felt, than the actual teaching of students.
In this new film about London’s National Gallery, the focus is very much on the pedagogy over the administration. Sure, there are some scenes featuring the then-director Nicholas Penny and his team, but the tenor of these is largely set up by an early scene of (I’m guessing) a marketing manager rather tediously (and vaguely) confronting Penny about the gallery’s public engagement strategies, as it’s this theme that’s picked up again later during a board debate about a charity event. Instead, when the camera isn’t on the paintings (generally briefly) or on people looking at paintings in the galleries, it’s mostly observing the staff engaging various audiences about the meanings in the paintings and their value as artistic works. These audiences range from public visits and school groups standing in front of the paintings themselves, students looking behind the scenes at restoration work (a vital yet sensitive part of the gallery’s function), educational events (for example, one in which blind people are given tactile versions of the paintings), and rather more stentorian groups of members and donors. These all combine to give a sense of how the gallery and its director must navigate these various interest groups, protecting the gallery’s function as a public space as well as its increasing need to keep revenue ticking over.
But it’s also a film about the limitations of capturing paintings on film. One educator talks to students about the difference between paintings and films in terms of time (what we might call their synchronic versus diachronic aspects, to exhume a bit of film studies lingo), that one is a moment in time whereas another can evolve over a duration. Wiseman gives as much prominence to the pictures as to those people in the gallery who are looking at or standing around these pictures. The documentary tries to convey a sense of what it is to confront art in a gallery setting, and about its value to society, but the nature of film makes it difficult to really do more than show people talking about the art, though the montage valiantly tries to break some of the works down during discussions in the way you might focus on different areas of the painting while thinking about its effects and the themes the artist is trying to convey. If the film then is reminiscent of the famous quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, so Wiseman’s ending seems like a witty rephrasing of this with relation to filming art. Luckily, despite the film’s length, sitting through it to get to this scene is far from a chore, and the fact that I didn’t feel the need to visit the Gallery afterwards (despite it being just around the corner from the cinema) is — I hope — a testament to the breadth of its approach.
Director Frederick Wiseman; Cinematographer John Davey; Length 181 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 11 January 2015.