BY Nick Pinkerton in Profiles | 31 OCT 14
Featured in
Issue 167

Museum Guide

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary about London’s National Gallery

BY Nick Pinkerton in Profiles | 31 OCT 14

Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, 2014. Courtesy: Soda Pictures

When I think of depictions of art museums in cinema, scenes of rapt visitors aren’t what first comes to mind. There is the breakneck tour of the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964); the pursuit through a Berlin museum in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 Torn Curtain (heavily borrowed from in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel this year); the art gallery as a cruising ground in Brian De Palma’s 1980 Dressed to Kill (the interior is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exterior New York’s Metropolitan Museum); and the continuous Steadicam shot that blows through the State Hermitage Museum in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002).

If these examples suggest that the moving image is somehow inimical to the still canvas, I urge you to see Frederick Wiseman’s documentary National Gallery (2014). Realized thanks to an unprecedented level of access to the London institution, Wiseman’s film documents activity in every strata of the museum, from boardroom to classroom, director to gallery guide, conservator to caretaker. Introducing National Gallery at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Wiseman laid out the numbers. Shot over the course of three months in 2012, the resulting 170 hours of footage was edited down to three hours. To this, I’ll add another figure: National Gallery is the 39th documentary produced by Wiseman, whose oeuvre may be said to constitute a museum unto itself. To wander the rooms of this museum is to view a remarkable variety of Western democratic institutions in action – or, just as often, in deadlock – as seen over a nearly 50-year period by a curious and patient observer.

Wiseman was at university in the late 1940s, when New Criticism was at its height, and has always spoken for the importance of the principle of ‘close reading’ in his filmmaking practice; his last feature, At Berkeley (2013), ended with a professor’s exegesis of John Donne’s poem ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ (1669). In National Gallery, Wiseman has set his sights on another institution experiencing the funding pinch, though this time he scales back At Berkeley’s emphasis on trustee politicking to concentrate instead on close readings of the objects all the politicking is about: the paintings.

The film begins at the tail end of the blockbuster show ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’, and carries through to the beginning of ‘Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude’ and the ‘multi-arts project’ ‘Metamorphosis: Titian’. The National Gallery exists to democratize access to art, at least some of which is elitist by nature, and the tension inherent to this mission is a pervasive undercurrent that is even vocalized by museum director Nicholas Penny as he discusses a particularly aloof work by Nicolas Poussin. We first see Penny holding the line against outreach, which he seems to view – not without justification – as a byword for ‘dumbing down’.

Penny is one of the characters who comes to the fore during the course of the film, along with Head of Display, Dawson W. Carr (now curating the European collection at the Portland Art Museum), and Director of Restoration, Larry Keith. These higher-ups receive no more introduction than the visitors we see looking at the canvases. The film’s other stars are the museum’s lecturers and guides, whose discourse directs both the sight of museum patrons and the camera-eye. The first that we encounter asks her audience to imagine a medieval altarpiece animated by the flicker of 13th-century candlelight – ‘You’re not in the National Gallery, you’re inside that church’ – and, time and again, the subject of context returns in discussions over placement of works, or their removal from their original settings. This puts me in mind of the 2008 film by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours. Assayas’s film hinges on the debate among a recently deceased woman’s surviving grandchildren as to what to do with her estate – which includes relics relating to her uncle, a noted painter – and is never more poignant than when lingering on the last view of her heirlooms, removed from a home environment and housed in an antiseptic display case in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Mark Becker, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, Art and Craft, 2014. Courtesy: Oscilloscope Laboratories; photograph: Sam Cullman

Summer Hours sprang from a proposed omnibus film financed by the Musée d’Orsay, as did Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) and Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day (2008). Not to be outdone, the Louvre underwrote 2009’s Face by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, who has recently looked towards galleries and museums as exhibition spaces. The museum and the cinema, two exhibition models eternally insecure about their relevance, seem increasingly to be clinging together for reassurance. The result is not only a museification of film culture, but an unprecedented openness of museums to being transcribed in film. Along with National Gallery and the forthcoming Vatican Museums in 3D (2014), we have recently seen Oeke Hoogendijk’s four-hour The New Rijksmuseum (2013) and Johannes Holzhausen’s The Great Museum (2014), filmed during the reopening of the Kunstkammer rooms in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. This last venue is also the setting for Museum Hours, a 2012 film by the American director Jem Cohen, who stages one of the movie’s key scenes in the famous ‘Brueghel Room’. (In it, an unfailingly pleasant guide deflects conflict with a couple of thick, conservative North American tourists who take exception at her secular-humanist reading of the 1567 painting Conversion of Paul. These foils are as obvious as the tenor of her speech is subtle.)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder seems to exhibit a particular appeal to filmmakers. In Lech Majewski’s 2011 The Mill and the Cross, another painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, The Procession to Calvary (1564), is subject to a reading of an entirely different level of depth. The film shows Rutger Hauer’s Brueghel bearing witness to the vignettes that he will eventually combine in his canvas. The peasant painter is also the muse for French director Marcel Hanoun in Le Regard (The Gaze, 1977). The film begins with a couple in bed in a hotel room in Brussels; upon her leaving him alone to go out, it establishes a pattern of shifting between the man having sex with another (possibly imagined) woman and his female companion in that city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, examining Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c.1560). Her attention to the canvas is accompanied by musings which echo W.H. Auden’s 1938 poem ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts’, briefly alluded to by guides in both Museum Hours and National Gallery. (‘In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.’)

Recent scholarship suggests that the painting is possibly not by Brueghel at all, but the work of one of his followers. And provenance and authentication are the subjects of a ‘gallery film’ of quite another sort – Art and Craft (2014), a very funny documentary by Mark Becker, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman. The film’s ‘star’ is Mark Landis, a solitary resident of Laurel, Mississippi, who for a number of years has been using cheap, over-the-counter art supplies to make highly skilled forgeries of Old Master paintings – forgeries that he then gives, free of charge, to unsuspecting museum and university collections across the US.

That one degree or another of falsification is intrinsic to the gallery experience is a theme that carries through Wiseman’s film, which concludes with attempts to ‘translate’ Titian into other forms: a pas-de-deux in front of his Diana and Actaeon (1556–59) to William Byrd’s Miserere mei, Deus (Have Mercy on Me, Oh God, 1591), with verse by Jo Shapcott, who confesses ‘every poem is a crude translation of something else’. This translation occurs every time a film camera is pointed at a canvas – and we should expect to see a great deal more of it if the cinema and the gallery continue to coalesce.

Nick Pinkerton lives in New York, USA. His writes regularly for Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound and Little White Lies.