Frederick Wiseman's compelling documentary examines the great museum
Given the current trend for museum themed pictures, the timing is right for venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman to place his distinctive, considered mark on London’s National Gallery. Taken from 12 weeks' worth of behind the scenes snooping, this is a 180min compression of the life of one of the world’s greatest museums. It doesn’t examine every one of its 2400 paintings but it does expose the whole of its remit, seen and unseen, from tactile courses for the sight-impaired to curators who show how art can be the most fascinating storytelling device.
Wiseman’s camera takes us up close to the canvases, something we couldn’t do as visitors. It’s okay to stare – in fact, we’re supposed to in order to see why each object is here. Wiseman pushes us to focus alongside him as lecturers and docents enable us to travel back to the time when a work was created, to learn how it may have been seen and what people thought of it. The more you know, the more you want to stampede to the museum to see these works in person.
As interesting as the National Gallery’s own podcasts, this film makes the subtle argument that popularity and academia can be friends. This long look at an institution many think elitist or boring emerges in Wiseman’s hands as neither. There are no explosions or car chases, but there’s plenty of excitement in the vivid stories contained within the thick museum walls. By seeing a Rembrandt X-rayed and learning that a restored painting won’t look like it did when it was first created, by listening in on a real-time closed door meeting, Wiseman forces us to slow down and truly see. Via conservation, sketch courses, workshops and, yes, those big well-marketed exhibitions, we understand what art brings us – and that museums are still important.
Selected release from Fri 9 Jan.