It was only a matter of time before Frederick Wiseman cast his immersive gaze on a museum, and “National Gallery” has everything the vet helmer needs in an institution where public perception is largely restricted to public spaces. Turning his camera on works of art and the people who steer the distinguished London complex, the grand old man of hands-off documentaries studies paintings and bears witness to staff meetings, curatorial discussions and gallery talks. Hardly a marathon by Wiseman standards, “National Gallery” may seem repetitive for many, though art lovers and Wiseman fans should keep docu houses and especially ancillary moderately busy.
Certainly this is the moment for museum profiles, with the Rijksmuseum and Kunsthistorisches Museum already handsomely packaged in film form and “Vatican Museums 3D” on the way. Wiseman spent 12 weeks in the National Gallery in 2012, where his focus largely rested on Old Master paintings (by and large the impressionists come only in the last 10 minutes), the people who lecture before them, those who conserve them, and the staff dedicated to preserving the museum’s reputation as one of the greatest art collections in the world.
His camera rests on canvases and panels, showing first general views and then moving in to look at details — something museum visitors are often too intimidated to do alone. As objects rather than people, artworks are acceptable as subjects for Wiseman’s direct engagement, contravening his rigid nonintervention rule and asking the works to communicate directly to the viewer. The goal is the same as that of the docents seen discussing art with the general public: Concentrate attention on the paintings to break through any barrier of age or subject, educating the eye to look closely.
Expressive docents assist this aim through public talks that reveal wonders perhaps not readily apparent to the untrained eye, so in front of a 14th-century Tuscan altarpiece by Jacopo di Cione and his workshop, a lecturer focuses attention on what the experience of looking at such a work would have been when it was painted, not in a museum but in a chapel lit by flickering candlelight. Elsewhere, another docent talks to children in front of Orazio Gentileschi’s “The Finding of Moses,” teaching them to recognize stories in paintings so they come alive, as in familiar picture books.
Some may feel Wiseman includes a few too many gallery talks (interested parties can just as easily watch NG podcasts), though the result subverts any notion of the museum as an untenably elitist space erecting barriers to public consumption. In a meeting between NG director Nicholas Penny and head of communications Jill Preston, there’s a noticeable pull between marketing and curatorial exactitude during which Preston argues for making the museum more populist by bringing in the public perspective alongside the curatorial one. Penny resists the notion that the highbrow needs to give way to average tastes, arguing that the NG shouldn’t be dumbing down its presentation, but rather encouraging visitors to realize they’re enriched by exposure to the institution’s higher purpose.
In fact, “National Gallery” proves what a terrific job the museum does in opening itself to the public, not just via lectures and exhibitions (such as the hugely popular Leonardo da Vinci show) but also through concerts, life-model sketch classes, workshops for teachers, and even hands-on experiences for the blind. Pushing the museum off its pedestal is a foolish notion when surely the goal should be to make people aware that what’s on that pedestal can communicate directly with them, if they give it the time to do so.
Of course, one of Wiseman’s main preoccupations is the inside workings of an institution, and he devotes ample segments to the conservation studios where, for example, X-rays of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback” reveal an earlier horizontal composition underneath the visible painting. Larry Keith, director of conservation, discusses with students and colleagues Velazquez’s “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” talking about how to recognize changing color values and the need to understand that no restoration will make a painting look just as it did when it was first made.
The effect of “National Gallery” is to reinforce the notion that paintings are objects to know and understand; gallery visitors far less so, mute observers fleetingly captured in various modes of engagement from studious to sleepy. Toward the end, a poetry reading by Jo Shapcott, in connection with the exhibition “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012,” feels unnecessary, as does a dance performance in one of the galleries.
As for where “National Gallery” fits into Wiseman’s significant oeuvre, it’s safe to say a bit below “At Berkeley” but above “Crazy Horse,” with the best parallels probably with his classical ballet films, since there the object — the performance — is given equal weight to the backstage discussions. As usual, there are no identifications of either paintings or persons.