National Gallery screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday and continues its first run through December 4th. For ticket information, please check out the Gene Siskel Film Center’s website here.
Walking through the galleries of paintings and sculptures in the Art Institute of Chicago, one may ask what makes a painting relevant today. With the museum located in the downtown area near the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Millennium Park, and multitudes of other tourist attractions, what makes this all vital? As I inspected the considerable offerings at the Art Institute, marveling at such pieces like Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day and contemporary offerings like David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (a sprayed enamel piece of a drowning swimmer), the answer is difficult to convey through language; a je ne sais quoi so to speak. But like film, the beauty comes from an internal response that one has to a specific work of art. It’s the sort of visceral and cerebral reaction that feels one of a kind, an emotion incapable of being reproduced. Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery understands this inherent importance associated with observing art and fixes his attention on an institution that houses it - an institution that must reconcile competing ideals of artistic integrity and financial security. Like Wiseman’s previous documentary, At Berkeley, National Gallery is an intensive piece that explores the many crevices that compose the English institution. It is a considerable work and one of the finest films made about how we interpret art.
London’s National Gallery is where Wiseman positions his lens, and where he exploits his free access to roam not just the galleries but behind the scenes as well, where administrators discuss the museum’s trajectory. Like At Berkeley, National Gallery does reveal a sense of structure, where sequences bleed into one another. For instance, a sequence involving a tour guide discussing Peter Paul Rubens’ Samson and Delilah involves her careful study of the symbolic depiction of color and action in the portrait. Later in the picture, Wiseman shows another expert discussing that same portrait and the museum’s insufficient display of it - the portrait was meant to be observed on higher ground, above a fireplace, where many of the subtle details in color are properly conveyed and illustrated. This presents two fundamental arguments that National Gallery tackles: that our interpretation of art correlates with the venue and circumstance in which we observe them and that an observer ought to keep in mind the historical context of a work. We may lose sight of this, but like a photograph, the art on display in any given museum reflects a snapshot of time, whereby the artist captures a specific experience within a specific time.
Yet amid the fascinating discourse that composes about a third of National Gallery, there’s also a carefully attuned study of the mundane. Wiseman includes sequences of the custodian staff prepping for a day’s visit, staff discussing the museum’s public profile, demolition and reconstruction of an exhibit, and the rigorous work of art preservation itself. The cumulative effect is equal parts astounding and exhausting, where it feels like every corridor of the museum has been explored - resulting in an experience that’s not too far off from a museum visit itself. But ultimately, Wiseman broadens an important conversation about what it means to interpret and digest art. The most frequent image in the film are not that of the National Gallery’s massive collection, but rather the faces observing them; peering up in admiration, lost in thought. We are there with them.