In the first of the many enthralling painting presentations that pepper National Gallery, a museum educator creates a pleasingly oblique connection between the candlelight in a 14th-century church and throwing darts at a fluffy kitten, her goal being to emphasize the strength of the bond between the representation of an object and the object itself. Perhaps with this in mind, Frederick Wiseman’s latest bravura documentary actively invokes the feeling of wandering freely through London’s venerable National Gallery, glimpsing countless classic works of art, listening in on experts expounding on their meaning, and absorbing the hushed atmosphere of the exhibition halls. But Wiseman’s wanderings are by no means restricted to what a normal visitor sees, as he surveys board meetings, restoration discussions, and reframing challenges with the same keen gaze trained on the artworks themselves—an 84-year-old flâneur eagerly exploiting the access he’s been granted.
The path Wiseman plots through the National Gallery feels so organic you could all but overlook the considerable method underpinning all his seemingly casual meanderings. Nothing is left to chance in how the camera makes its way through the institution, as each new encounter, discussion, and location is carefully linked to those that have gone before. In the style of an ambling, yet entirely focused visitor, the film continually circles back to pictures, protagonists, and situations to furnish them with new meanings, alter their perception, or even directly challenge their previous presentation.
While the first visit to Rubens’s Samson and Delilah thus involves a psychological reading of its compositional elements, the second one, an hour or so later, is all about how paintings used to be created for highly specific lighting situations. The museum director is a stridently elitist presence in board meetings, before morphing into more of a fawning tour guide when important guests want to see the collection. And just as the life class with a female model conjures up all the infinite poses contained within the gallery, the same class with a male model reveals how women’s bodies in painting traditionally had to be derived from those of men.
A similar delicate balancing act between spontaneity and structure also plays out on a formal level, with the framing, editing, and sound design all exhibiting the same leisurely precision. Grace and function flow together in how the camera perches behind a restorer removing centuries-old grime from a sea scene, switches to a detail shot of the canvas, before several hours of work are smoothly elided to show the newly glowing colors across the painting as a whole. No one snippet of institutional life ever goes undetected: flowers being arranged in vases, sticky tape being pulled off a soon-to-be dismantled wall, the subdued announcement that the exhibition is sold out that disrupts the silence of the waiting people. While this incredible level of detail directly emerges from the film’s casual, circuitous wanderings, some digressions inevitably engage less than others, particular as the film enters its final hour. The gallery head’s own rambling painting presentation, an extended discussion on restoring a Velázquez, and the stuffy dance piece that forms part of the Titian exhibition all lack the instinctive brevity and clarity of focus of what’s come before, even if the staidness they convey still speaks volumes about the institution itself.
The careful accumulation of details and themes also allows National Gallery to function equally well as an effortlessly comprehensive institutional portrait and an open-form essay on the very image itself, an entirely harmonious synthesis that’s the film’s crowning achievement. While none of the numerous discussions conducted around the gallery’s paintings are in themselves difficult to follow, a dizzying complexity emerges once they’re taken together. The result is a sort of pictorial echo chamber in which all the manifold facets of these images are made to reverberate, at once congealed narratives, visual structures, layered materials, colonial trappings, and historical documents, to name just a few. And the snaking web of interconnections doesn’t even end there, as the paintings are in turn placed in reference to other media or disciplines, whether anatomy, photography, literature, poetry, dance or, not least, film. Watching National Gallery is like following a sinuous path through an institution that can ultimately lead anywhere, with the terms bandied around along the way—representation, multivalency, anamorphosis—also unconsciously addressing the film’s own approach.
In another example of unwitting self-referentiality, when an exhibition curator pays tribute to Leonardo da Vinci at the opening of a grand-scale exhibition of his work, it’s impossible not to apply his comments to both National Gallery and its still astonishingly talented maker: an artist who constantly refines and revisits certain themes over and over again. And keeping the same conversation in mind, the contrast between Wiseman and most of his observational documentary colleagues is equally akin to the difference between da Vinci and the work of his pupils: You see motifs being repeated, you can see beautiful craft, but you don’t see the same exquisiteness of thought.