Thursday, October 23, 2014


By D.E.Levine

Director Frederick Wiseman gives us a beautiful and fascinating documentary in National Gallery about the museum that is located at the northern end of Trafalgar Square in London.

Taking viewers on a tour of the paintings in the National Gallery, Wiseman stops to listen and record conversations about art, context and form.  Focusing on several docents and/or guides, one of whom discusses a Camille Pissarro to visually impaired audience who use embossed reproductions of the painting with which to see it.  Much of the documentary challenges viewers to discover for themselves what the artists meant or mean.

There are fascinating conversations on conservation efforts, speculation regarding what lies beneath the exterior varnish and layers of paint of some masters, and even descriptions of how painter George Stubbs hung skinned carcasses of horses via a pulley system in order to understand their anatomy. There's even a scene where activists climb to the roof of the National Gallery and unfurl a banner protesting Shell's plan to drill in the Arctic during a company art event, as a protest.

Throughout the film there is a constant refrain about the importance of money to art.  This is explored in conversations about whether the museum needs to do more to make itself attractive to the general public, and additional conversations about the National Gallery's budget.

While the film is a 3-hour cinematic journey, Wiseman never lets us forget that there is a relationship between commerce, labor, patronage and sometimes exploitation.  In one scene a guide explains to students that the institutions origins can be traced directly to the slave trade via John Julius Angerstein, an art patron who amassed his fortune through the slave trade in Grenada..

While he gives us a wonderful and enjoyable tour of the National Gallery, Wiseman also lets us gaze upon and into ourselves.