From its powerful pedestal in prime position in one of London’s busiest tourist traps, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery has maintained its air of prestige and high-flying presence as one of London’s ancient(ish) art galleries.
With memories of herded school trips or quiet morning visits, nap times in a secluded corner to titillating nudes and over-shoulder-peeking at sketchers, the National Gallery undoubtedly has a firm place in London’s – if not the nation’s – hearts. Yet in Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour documentary, we are also given access to what happens before the doors open, before the rabble are let in and before the paintings even make it on to the walls.
With no soundtrack or voice over, there is a distinctly contemplative feel to the film, as the camera-eye flicks over close ups, wideshots and pans an empty gallery. But where this deconstructed view of National Gallery excels is when we are able to meet the people that populate it. From the boardroom to the restoration room, the vast halls of the gallery to the queue outside, the characters are almost as diverse and fascinating as those that hang within the frames on the walls.
Bravely opening up their meeting spaces to the film cameras, we eavesdrop on the struggles between curators and marketing, the pressures of fundraising and advertising for prestigious arts organisations with that horrifying term ‘selling out’, a phrase that causes director Nicholas Penny to almost physically recoil during a discussion of whether Sports Relief could project charity logos on to the facade. With doors widely opened, we gain access to the restoration room, where grey skies are transformed to a stunning blue with the help of a cotton bud and a carefully mixed solution, ghostly apparitions of former paintings are revealed hiding beneath masterpieces by x-ray technology, and the iconic, intricate golden frames come to shine.
We follow the wonderfully enthusiastic tour guides, whose responsibility it is to shape a love of art in the young children and the high school kids, the university students and the adult learners – and of course, ourselves as we learn and absorb the inspirations and passions of the staff and the gallery visitors. It’s a fascinating insight – and of course, a happily inadvertent marketing tool for the Gallery, revealing the range of activities on offer – life drawing, art tours for the blind, lectures, dance performances, live music..
Almost side-stepping the challenge of the sheer volume of art and history within the Gallery, Wiseman’s purposely standoffish technique steps away from the close-up, offering only fleeting glances at the art itself and its admirers. Even in a slow-paced three hours we could never hope to see it all. Instead, Wiseman encourages to pause and instead embrace the ‘art of looking’ rather than box-ticking of the ‘headline acts’. Although the Titians and the Turners certainly get a starring role.
A rare and illuminating tour of one of London’s finest institutions, elevating the ’making-of’ documentary to new heights in revealing the craftsmanship, expertise and pride that propels the making of a gallery.
National Gallery is out now in cinemas