National Gallery, the “latest entry in Frederick Wiseman’s tireless career project, which attempts to capture and reveal the systems and procedures within a vast variety of cultural and state institutions, is his most purely compelling and subtly provocative film in years,” writes Blake Williams at Ioncinema. “Focusing on the ins, outs, and in-betweens of the National Gallery in London, this is largely comprised of footage of museum visitors looking and listening, and tour guides talking and instructing; meanwhile, behind the gallery walls, a bureaucratic network of administrators, curators, and executives debate topics ranging from advertising and marketing strategies to crippling budget cuts. From every angle, stories ares being told, and histories being enforced. As always, Wiseman observes rather than imposing upon the goings-on, and he shapes his material in such a way that we can make our own judgments about what we see and hear.”
“Wiseman’s tour of that unique place is sure to be described as ‘impressionistic,’ which is the word that comes up when something is unsystematic, but otherwise hard to characterize,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “He observes gallery talks about Titian and Turner. He sits in on a meeting about dealing with cuts in the gallery’s budget. He returns again and again to the conservation labs, where specialists study paintings and try to conserve them to keep the passage of time from taking too heavy a toll. He visits the gallery’s recent retrospective on Leonardo da Vinci, the blockbuster of blockbusters, for which visitors stood (or sat, or paced) on line for hours in the bitter London cold.”
In a dispatch to the Dissolve from Toronto, Mike D’Angelo noted that “there are shots of paintings, shots of people looking at paintings, shots of docents discussing paintings, shots of experts restoring paintings, etc. For me, that last aspect is the film’s most fascinating—there’s a lengthy explication of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, for example, which x-rays reveal was painted over another composition that was horizontal rather than vertical. (Rembrandt apparently just turned the canvas 90° and started over.) Behind-the-scenes discussions about the museum’s marketing strategies are also engrossing, though Wiseman never quite manages to make the intersection of art and commerce a full-blown theme…. At three hours, the doc is a lot like a visit to an actual museum, rewarding, informative, and exhausting.”
“Among this movie’s many attractions is the extraordinary geometry of looks that Mr. Wiseman traces as he draws lines among the people in the paintings, the people looking at the paintings and, of course, you, the movie viewer,” observes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.
In Cinema Scope, Kiva Reardon adds: “In part, this is a way to animate the possible tedium of filming static paintings, but it also feels intentionally indicative of what Wiseman asks from his own documentary work: patient decoding.” And for the Notebook, she talks with Wiseman “about this theme of looking, the genesis of National Gallery on the ski slopes of Switzerland, and his debt to his dentist.”
Viewing (‘4’06”). The BBC’s Tom Brook meets Wiseman.
Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.
Update, 10/6: “I was reminded,” writes Max Nelson at Reverse Shot, “watching National Gallery, of some advice an English professor at my university recently gave a seminar of grad students whom he was trying to guide through Ezra Pound’s massive, confounding epic poem The Cantos. ‘Don’t think of Pound as a poet who starts with a blank page and fills it up. If you do, you’ll be confused by what’s there. Think of him as a sculptor who starts with the history of human civilization and reduces it until the poem is all that’s left; that way, you’ll be confused by what isn’t.’ Wiseman’s films are sometimes massive (many match or exceed National Gallery’s three-hour runtime), but they never confound. The voice in which they speak is crisp, plainspoken, unembellished, and yet hugely flexible, capable of shifting tonal registers with undetectable ease.”
Update, 11/3: “The path Wiseman plots through the National Gallery feels so organic you could all but overlook the considerable method underpinning all his seemingly casual meanderings,” writes James Lattimer for Slant. “Nothing is left to chance in how the camera makes its way through the institution, as each new encounter, discussion, and location is carefully linked to those that have gone before. In the style of an ambling, yet entirely focused visitor, the film continually circles back to pictures, protagonists, and situations to furnish them with new meanings, alter their perception, or even directly challenge their previous presentation.”
Updates, 11/4: “Wiseman’s films invariably call attention to each other,” writes David Ehrlich at the Dissolve, “but National Gallery is one of the few that calls attention to itself. That isn’t to say that Wiseman has suddenly decided to abandon his signature detachment in favor of becoming an octogenarian Morgan Spurlock. It’s just that a documentary about the preservation and presentation of art was always going to confront the fundamental tension at the heart of Wiseman’s work, between images and their representations. The carefully modulated flatness of his movies makes it easy (and fun) to spot patterns and feel out the key ideas bubbling up to the surface, and National Gallery so repeatedly returns to the relationship between artworks and their audiences that the subject begins to feel like the chorus of a very long song, or the leitmotif of a medium-length opera.”
Mike D’Angelo goes for a second round, this time for the AV Club: “Unlike Wiseman’s greatest films, National Gallery never quite finds an overarching theme. There’s a fair amount of material regarding the art/commerce divide, but many scenes have no bearing whatsoever on that subject, and the film generally lacks urgency. Wiseman is at his best when he’s capturing the ugly collision of regular folks and the system, having beaten The Wire to that approach by several decades. His cultural-institution pictures, by contrast, feel like his means of relaxing a bit, of working without having to experience the sort of constant tension inspired by a hospital (Hospital) or a welfare office (Welfare). When it comes to a towering master like Wiseman, however, even the minor efforts are pretty major.”
Updates, 11/5: “Like most of Mr. Wiseman’s work, the movie is at once specific and general, fascinating in its pinpoint detail and transporting in its cosmic reach,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “It’s about art and process, money and mystery, and all the many, many people gazing and gawping and, at times, lining up to see a blockbuster show. That National Gallery is also about movies is surely a given.”
“Might National Gallery not be an exemplar of everything contemporary art has flirted with over the past quarter-century?” asks Philip Brophy, writing for Artforum. “The film can be viewed as a soft yet incisive inventory aligned with seminal institutional critique, from the social analyses of John Berger and Victor Burgin to the museographic interventions of Daniel Buren and Michael Asher. Viewed accordingly, National Gallery is a sharp consideration of how to navigate the problems of institutional critique by judiciously parsing significance to the multitude of voices heard within the National Gallery’s confines.”
Nick Schager for the Voice: “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.”
“It simply won’t do to call filmmaker Frederick Wiseman a documentarian,” argues Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “Like the Maysles brothers, like Shirley Clarke, like D.A. Pennebaker at his heights, Wiseman has created a body of work that proves him a great filmmaker, period. His latest picture, National Gallery, is a typically lucid, graceful and unobtrusively multi-tiered work.”
Updates, 11/7: “The three-hour-long film has no musical score and no apparent added sound effects,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “What it does have is a lot of of talking, much of which takes place in the presence of masterworks on display. A lot of that talk is a distraction and an annoyance on the order of construction noise—and yet that superfluous and distracting vocal drone is the canny intellectual underpinning of Wiseman’s movie.”
“While that whippersnapper Godard may be getting a lot of ink lately as a master of quotations and references, Wiseman remains a preeminent collage artist of the world at large, and the museum’s centuries of masterpieces and extraordinary scholars present untold riches to work with,” writes Nicolas Rapold for the L. “Fashioned from the work of Da Vinci, Titian, Turner, Holbein, Velazquez—the list goes on—and tours given by guides and scholars, National Gallery is at once a dense, ideal visit and a restless essay on aesthetics, brought alive by the bustling matrix of perspectives that is the viewing public. While plenty of experts are on hand to walk us through terrifically insightful journeys through the paintings, Wiseman’s symphonic film is structurally held together, and made cinematically vibrant, through maybe the most reaction shots ever put together in a feature film—art and thought both put on display.”
Update, 11/9: Nick Pinkerton for frieze: “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.”
Update, 11/10: Girish Shambu: “One quiet but persistent theme in this film is the tension between the separateness of an artwork—its identity firmly associated with a single art form—and its connectedness and co-existence with other art forms.”
Update, 11/12: Listening (38’32”). Filmwax Radio‘s Adam Schartoff talks with Wiseman.
Update, 11/15: Wiseman’s “classicism gets crisper and more alluring with each movie,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “There has been a poignancy to him in the last 15 or 16 years. But he’s earned whatever fealty critics and some moviegoers feel toward him.”
Updates, 11/23: For Ray Pride at Newcity Film, “there’s serene poetry here.”
At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell finds that National Gallery is “reminiscent of Jem Cohen’s 2012 Museum Hours, a drama dressed as a documentary about a museum guard’s slowly developing relationship with a vibrant museum visitor that enriches both of their lives. We’ve no such focal point here, though a favorable discussion about the spirituality evident in Da Vinci’s works explain his relevance today (which translates into profit for the museum during an exhibition) and speaks to the power these works still hold today.”
Update, 12/9: “In an interview with Arnaud Hée Paris earlier this year, Wiseman called this film his most abstract, likening it to a mosaic rather than a narrative,” notes John Duncan Talbird, writing for Film International. “This was surprising to me to read as I find this film much less abstract, much more narratively driven than some of his other recent films.”
Updates, 12/30: In the Observer, Laura Cumming finds that “though practically every painting in the gallery has its moment, none holds the camera for long. And this is what weakens an otherwise superbly intelligent documentary: it never looks at the place in full swing, crowded with the faces of real and painted people, never shows the artists who are permitted to walk the rooms by night, the visitors who come every day, or fall in love with particular paintings. It takes no real interest in the public, which owns the National Gallery, or in our human responses to art.”
And Jeremy Sigler interviews Wiseman for Tablet.
Updates, 1/11: “Wiseman’s own audience become students,” writes Jenny Uglow for the New York Review of Books. “The curators and lecturers, like the rest of the Gallery’s staff, remain nameless, and it seems right to follow his lead, but we get to know the speakers as we watch lectures and classes of different kinds. And although in passing we may learn about Caravaggio, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, about Holbein and Henry VIII, about the ethos of the Counter-Reformation or Titian’s use of poesia, we learn almost more about the varied ways that art can be brought to life today.”
“Wiseman has always neglected quirk and extravagance, looking instead at work, aging, illness, commerce and personal catastrophe, and if the gimlet eye he used to cast on institutional madness in the 70s has mellowed considerably, that’s just as natural a part of his process as showing up in the first place,” writes Michael Atkinson for Sight & Sound. In National Gallery, “Wiseman’s position is, as always, ambiguous—if he has one, rather than simply an inquisitive stance towards the people as individuals on both sides of the educational divide (who remain glimpsed, unnamed and unexplored), and perhaps how the institution frames them, one to the other. (Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, about Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, was a more pungent homage to hypnotic museum-ness.)… These swathes of the film are not at all unlike visiting the Gallery, or another huge museum, yourself; you don’t need Wiseman. The backstage time, however, is entrancing.”
Tim Robey profiles Wiseman for the Telegraph and writes in his review: “The real joy of his film is that it never needs to strain for effect; it sits back. It’s like being lulled with intelligence. However long it is since you last climbed the gallery’s steps, you’ll watch this truly inspiring piece of work and rue the interval.”
“What He Sees Is What You Get,” writes Mark Asch in Little White Lies. “But what Wiseman sees, in this case, is many people who are differently, effusively adept at interacting with art.”
“An intriguing and valuable record,” agrees the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw.