Like so much of his celebrated work, documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery is long, leisurely paced, wide-ranging, meticulously crafted, intellectually intricate, and touched with profundity.
Demanding intense engagement with its images, sounds, and atmosphere, Wiseman’s film concerns London’s National Gallery circa 2012, which he presents via protracted scenes of — among other sights — staffers discussing financial and strategic business decisions, historians providing lectures to visitors, patrons viewing the classical paintings on display (from medieval times to the 19th century), and restorers giving presentations on their efforts.
What emerges from these seemingly disparate yet inherently connected sequences is a sense of constant dialogue — between an artist’s intentions and a viewer’s perspective; a museum’s needs and its clientele’s desires; the past and the present; experts and students; the “reality” of a piece of art and the illusory “magic” it creates; and between painting, music, dance, and film itself.
Using unassuming compositions and piercing edits to convey the experience of visiting the Gallery, Wiseman creates an invigorating portrait of various modes of storytelling, and of the endless mysteries — and thus opportunities for investigation, analysis, and debate — that art (and life) affords us. A tribute to the wonders of creative expression, presentation, preservation, and cross-discipline conversation, National Gallery is a film about classics and their illustrious home that itself has been made by a modern master.