Arts & Books

A documentary that doesn’t play to the gallery

Frederick Wiseman’s film uncovers the inner workings of the National Gallery (CNS)

National Gallery
Various cinemas, from Friday

Frederick Wiseman makes documentaries about institutions. He’s taken his cameras to a sweaty boxing gym and a Parisian cabaret, while other, more high-brow establishments to have submitted to the Wiseman treatment include Berkeley University and the American Ballet Theatre. His latest documentary sits at the grander end of the scale, with the US filmmaker heading to London to chronicle a few months in the life of the National Gallery.

Wiseman’s approach is both satisfyingly unflashy and reassuringly serious. There are no voice-overs or talking heads: the cameras are simply there to observe the life going on around them. This distinguishes National Gallery from the kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary series so beloved of BBC Two (which it resembles aesthetically), as does the running time of around three hours, which allows Wiseman to tell the kind of nuanced and detailed story that television wouldn’t have time for.

Wiseman explores both the private and public workings of the gallery, filmed in early 2012. PR strategy meetings, life drawing classes and school visits all feature. Without the safety net of a voice-over, the film relies on clever editing to build drama and highlight tensions. We see the gallery’s hierarchy arguing politely over whether Sport Relief is an appropriate charity to align with. A few scenes later demonstrators unfurl a banner on the front of the building, protesting against the gallery’s presumably well-remunerated deal with Shell. A long and technical lecture on restoration by the head restorer is undercut later when another expert questions modern approaches to renovating paintings.

There are probably a few too many curator talks than necessary and the gallery’s impressive collection of Impressionist pieces deserve more than the paltry amount of screen time they get. But art lovers will nevertheless relish the discussions about the composition of Rubens’s Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio’s technique and the nature of Vermeer’s genius. Leonardo, Titian, Turner and many more great artists also get plenty of screen time.

Wiseman doesn’t caption the paintings shown and some tantalising details about the works are kept off camera – what, for example, is tucked away in the corner of Holbein’s Ambassadors? It’s an approach that will surely inspire many of the film’s viewers to make a dash for the National Gallery to see these historic paintings in person. And if you are stirred into making the trip, I’d recommend going very soon. The spectacular Rembrandt: The Late Works exhibition runs until January 18.

Four stars