Directed by Frederick Wiseman
A portrait of the day-to-day operations of the National Gallery of London, that reveals the role of the employees and the experiences of the Gallery's visitors. The film portrays the role of the curators and conservators; the education, scientific, and conservation departments; and the audience of all kinds of people who come to experience it.
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★★★★½ review by laird on Letterboxd
A few transitional sections focus on frame makers at work, and that may relate to the most important idea in National Gallery: the importance of framing/context and how this affects the creation, observation and interpretation of the artworks. Observation and imagination, the spiritual and the material, the immediate and the distant, the ephemeral and the eternal, and The National Gallery where all of these points converge. There's a popular sentiment that goes something like "you change, but the art stays the same," but what's reinforced over and over by Wiseman's subjects is that that's a bunch of baloney. Time, biological degradation, and the context both cultural and physical (as in the very space in which the art is displayed) all change a work of art independent of what any one observer brings to it. These underlying ideas are presented as the ocean upon which the institution of this specific gallery (but really any classic fine arts repository) must navigate, trying to bridge the gap between hundreds of years of meaning to keep these works vital in a world that will never stop changing. Note how every lecturer in the movie begins or ends sentences with, "...I think...", a humble uncertainty that their perspective is definitive. When a treasure trove of fine art is founded on money made through slave trade and a beautiful portrait of a horse was mastered by the manipulation and mutilation of several horse carcasses, at some point it becomes more interesting to discuss history, context and process than intention anyway.
★★★★★ review by Scott Renshaw on Letterboxd
It's tempting to look at this in elegiac terms--an 80-plus-year-old filmmaker exploring an institution dedicated to preserving and teaching people about art, continuing vital conversations about centuries-old works and granting their creators a kind of immortality. And I suppose it's even quite effective on that level. But the scope here is utterly transfixing, moving from the gallery spaces themselves and the gaze of laypeople to the educational efforts of docents and scholars to the behind-the-scenes work on everything from budgets to how to light an installation. As a result, it somehow manages to be one of the most extraordinary experiences I can remember about the full range of art within the human experience: as a commodity, as a transcendent view of genius, as something that requires nuts-and-bolts architecture to function properly, as craft passed from one generation to the next. It's about creation and critical engagement, about understanding what you want to know about a work and how it collides with what you can never know, about how many people whose names we will never know or remember play a crucial role in allowing miraculous art to appear before us. Wiseman paints on a breathtakingly large canvas and manages to give us three hours where, if I wanted the most concise way possible to answer the question, "What is art?", I'd show them this movie.
★★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
The latest from Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, about the British art museum of the same name. In a brisk three hours, Wiseman takes us on a tour of the place, following his now well-established structure: alternating long sequences of people at work, both "on-stage" (the tour guides, the restorers) and off (the frame-makers, the construction workers and janitorial crew) and administrative meetings where the war between commerce and art is fought, with breaks in-between made of "pillow shots", in this case usually close-ups of people looking at the art interspersed with close-ups of the faces in the art itself. He even manages to weasel in a couple of "interviews" wherein he films a person being interviewed, rather than having to break his cinematic code and interview them on-camera himself. It's great of course. I've watched a lot of Wiseman in the last month and I simply can't get enough of his films, the ones about art especially. It's beautiful and fascinating and that structure is so entrenched because it works so well to make a very long movie seem much shorter than it really is. But one thing is for sure: next time I go to a museum, I'm going to join a tour. Those guides are terrific. The less I say about the dance scene at the end, however, the better.
★★★½ review by Lawrence Garcia on Letterboxd
VIFF FILM #1
a.k.a THE ACT OF LOOKING. Consistently digressive and yet still compelling, i.e. a Wiseman documentary. Fascinating when it explores art, restoration, viewership, artistic integrity, public consumption, and a myriad of other things within the context of the museum or gallery (e.g. context of the piece and the original framing or play of light). Less compelling when it simply becomes an art history lecture, which it frequently does. Played out like an actual museum, with my interest waxing and waning as it would in an actual art gallery. Still, as with most of Wiseman's oeuvre, worth watching if only for the singular experience of doing so.
Wish there was more on that restoration bit though--that seemingly tossed off line about how hundreds if not thousands of hours of restoration work placed on top of varnish are gone within minutes of the next iteration of cleaning seriously floored me.
★★★★½ review by Rakestraw on Letterboxd
Expert documentarian Frederick Wiseman excellently conveys the power and importance of art in a seemingly effortless manner. Information is disseminated at every conceivable instance with Wiseman fixating his camera on any and all aspects and/or department within the National Gallery; be it through behind-the-scenes closed doors discussions or a multitude of craftsmen working on a variety of restorations, just about every possible viewpoint is represented in some context immersing the viewer in the various ins-and-outs of the legendary museum. This all-inclusive approach makes National Gallery one of the most comprehensive visual documents of any institution in cinema.
Even though National Gallery contains an abundance of behind-the-scenes footage it’s important to realize that at the center of all the scenes is the art. Whether it’s discussions revolving around bringing the art to a wider audience, budgeting for future exhibitions, restorations of said art or simply the visual frames of the hanging artwork itself – the art is the main focal point. The film is an immersive anthropological tableau vis-a-vis fly-on-the-wall voyeurism devoid of sit-down talking head interviews; even the employees showcased in National Gallery appear without their names attached just their deep reverence and appreciation of the artworks imbuing their sequences with contemplative compassion.
This viewpoint is brilliantly communicated through Wiseman’s deft handling of compiling and organizing the overflowing content that shapes National Gallery, molding this wealth of visual content into a quasi-exhibition (not unlike the Leonardo exhibition discussed within) exhibiting the footage in a rhythmic series of vignettes; at first, appearing rigid in its structure the film gradually melds melodic into a perfectly-curated mosaic of the logistical, the academic and the aesthetic.
The behind-the-scenes sequences of the private meetings and inner workings of the museum serve as contextual interludes segueing into the main attraction – the art – as the camera captures these magnificent works in the thoughtful stillness of static frames. These artwork interludes, mingled with the faces of the visiting public and their concentrated gazes, act as a punctuation mark to the preceding private sequences; an exclamation point, once again emphasizing the museum’s (and the film’s) main mission – the importance of art, their effect on culture and history and sharing these works with the public.
That art restorer discussing Rembrandt's Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback was akin to watching The Avengers duking it out in the streets with aliens and exploding buildings and chaos and screaming people running about and more aliens and lasers...except better, much much better.
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