Read three critical perspectives on National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014), by Lucinda Barnes, Chuck Mobley and Max Goldberg. National Gallery opens at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Elmwood in Berkeley, San Jose’s Camera 3 and the Sebastopol Cinemas on Friday, December 19.
NATIONAL GALLERY: The Sublime
by Lucinda Barnes
“How did Leonardo achieve such sublime beauty?” asks a lecturer at The National Gallery in London. “Observation and imagination,” she states with emphasis, referring to the artist’s exquisite painting from the late 1400s, The Virgin at the Rocks, one of the gems of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, and the inspiration for a blockbuster exhibition in 2011. Leonardo’s painting also plays a major role in Frederick Wiseman’s most recent film, National Gallery , a richly layered portrait of The National Gallery and the extraordinary masterpieces that hold forth in the museum. Some of my favorite artists and paintings from the past are featured players in this film. I admit my bias–I am an art historian and long-time museum curator.
National Gallery begins with long, quiet views of Old Master galleries before public hours. Gradually sounds seep in—the polishing of the floors; footsteps and voices of the day’s first visitors—as the galleries come to life. Slowly and carefully Wiseman pieces together an undulating mosaic of stories, images, and voices, progressively revealing a vibrant panorama shaped by observation and imagination. Stories about art and its making unfold from gallery tours led by docents and curators, public lectures, private events, and behind the scenes discussions among museum staff members. Wiseman intersperses these conversational segments with masterfully crafted, lingering shots of the paintings and the reactive gazes of viewers.
As the camera moves through galleries, sticking mostly to Renaissance and Baroque paintings, Wiseman returns on multiple occasions to particular artists and works, such as Peter Paul Rubens’s Samson and Delilah (1609-10). In our first encounter with this exuberant and sensual painting, a docent explains the biblical origin of the scene. She notes how Rubens chose to portray Delilah at the very moment of her politically motivated betrayal of Samson, and that even though she has acted patriotically, her expression and gesture suggest she is conflicted. Much later in the film we join another discussion about Samson and Delilah, led by a senior conservator talking with a small group of students. The conservator takes us deeper into visual analysis of the compositional elements of the painting, attesting to the skill and brilliance of Rubens. We learn that Rubens was commissioned to paint this quite large canvas for a private home, and that he probably painted it in situ. After closely examining and discussing sources and directions of light within the painting, the conservator proposes that Rubens intended the light within the composition to reflect and respond to natural available light in the very spot of the painting’s original location, which museum experts had also studied in detail.
Light underscores the next series of segments. A film crew tapes an animated and eloquent speaker on the qualities of light in JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire from 1839, a nearly abstract painting of sky and sea, minimally narrated with charged details of political moment in British history. Then we find ourselves in a gallery of late medieval/early Renaissance paintings and altarpieces, with curators, conservators, and crew testing and adjusting high, overhead lights, producing a subtle and stunning sequence of musings about observed and imagined qualities and impacts of light.
From the galleries we move to the labs in which conservators and scientists analyze, ponder, and unravel the material evidence of these enigmatic and inspiring works of art. The unnamed conservator we know from previous discussions about Peter Paul Rubens talks with a group of patrons about a massive painting by Rembrandt–a commissioned equestrian portrait of Frederick Rihel, from about 1663. We also might remember an earlier short passage in which he works on the surface of this huge painting. He now speaks about the results of his research and work on the Rembrandt, revealing a stunning discovery made with the aid of X-rays and intense, analytical observation. The conservator’s investigations reveal that for unknown reasons Rembrandt dramatically altered his initial plan for this painting, even rotating the painting’s orientation ninety degrees. In the process Rembrandt seems to have repurposed some of the pentimenti of the first composition into design elements in the final form. From my perspective, the sequences with conservators investigating the materials facts, mysteries, and concerns of the paintings at hand are the most revelatory and inspiring of Wiseman’s provocative visual essay.
In the final frames, after a brief passage of unnarrated images of signature 19th century works by Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Seurat, Cassatt, Renoir, and their peers, Wiseman closes with a series of close up portraits. Male. Female. Young. Aging. Portrayed with grace and humanity, each figure seems to gaze back at us, reaching out for eye contact. They are all portraits by Rembrandt, ranging from paying clients, his wife, a subsequent companion after the death of his wife, and his most frequent sitter—himself. The final image is a tender and haunting late self portrait, Rembrandt at the age of 63. I would venture to say that Wiseman closes his paean to the treasures of The National Gallery with his own favorites. Certainly, we have found ourselves in a place of sublime beauty, created from observation and imagination.
Lucinda Barnes joined the staff of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2001 as senior curator for collections, and in 2007 was named chief curator and director of programs and collections. Prior to coming to Berkeley, Barnes was the executive director of the Boise Art Museum, Idaho. She has also served as curator of collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, and has held senior curatorial posts at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) and the University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach. Barnes has taught at a number of colleges and universities. She received her B.A. from New York University, an M.A. from Williams College, and Ph.D. (ABD) in art history at the University of Southern California. In 2008–09 Barnes served as a UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities Fellow.
At BAM/PFA Barnes has curated and co-curated a wide range of exhibitions, including Measure of Time (2006), Joan Jonas: the Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2007), Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection (2008), Material Witness (2009), Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet (2009), Indeterminate Stillness: Looking at Whistler (2010), Abstract Expressionisms (2012), Hofmann by Hofmann (2014), and American Wonder: Folk Art from the Collection (2014). In addition Barnes has served as curator in charge of major traveling exhibitions at BAM/PFA, such as Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens (2005), Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia (2008), James Castle: A Retrospective (2010), What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect (2010), Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage (2011), Silence (2013), and Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible (2014).
by Chuck Mobley
Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery , a film whose subject is the famed London museum, is a near-genius epistemological study of an arts institution. Clearly, Wiseman’s modus operandi is to give his subjects enough rope to hang themselves. This generosity is also extended to his audience, who are afforded the time to weigh the pros and cons of their own suicide versus sitting still and remaining engaged the length of the film, which is three hours. Given that Wiseman had to endure the inanities of this institution for presumably months, it is, undoubtedly, the least his audience can do to see it through to the end.
Wiseman records seemingly every facet of the museum, sans the restrooms and gift shop. The film is as beautifully rendered as any “old master” painting on display. Customarily for a Wiseman film, there is not a single identifier for anyone or even any painting depicted. Only the museum’s director, Nicholas Penny, is thanked by name in the closing credits. It’s as if Wiseman were thinking: “Why bother? None of these people really matter.” While that may be arguable, it is true that most of the museum’s staff has little of value or consequence to say to their public. The mix of what one sees and hears in this film, alongside what one thinks as it unfolds, forms a fascinating, albeit infuriating, cultural paradox.
Opened in 1824, the paintings in the museum’s collection date from the mid-13th century to 1900 and, with the exception of one American, are entirely European in origin. Charged with educating its public about art history, the museum’s educational component, as represented in the film, manifests largely in gallery tours hosted by docents and curators and, more bewilderingly, figure drawing classes. The gallery tours have the surprising ability to render the museum and its contents as an interminable banality. While some guides expound on the formal qualities of the paintings, others take the ambitious liberty of indulging gallery visitors with the metaphysical by explaining how the paintings are “magical,” “speak to one another,” have the ability to “speak to people across time,” and, even more astonishingly, change “depending on your mood” or “what you had for lunch.” Still other guides simply shrug their shoulders and offer nothing more helpful than “you can look at them one way, you can interpret them in another.” It’s as if the 20th century with its major intellectual scholarly advancements in theological, historiographical, museological, psychoanalytic, political, social, and economic theory (to name only a few), never happened. The best way these individuals can conceive of to address their audience is with a sort of mildly enthusiastic soliloquy of mystical babble and emotive tropes of transcendence and sublimity. One wonders if the Stepford Wife-like drone leveled at gallery visitors is a pleasant kind of condescension meant to infantilize, or is cynically employed because the audience has been contemptuously assessed, a priori, as infantile. The one merciful exception is a scientist in the conservation department who addresses his colleagues in one scene and a private group of patrons in another. So intelligent is this unidentified man and frighteningly cogent his informal remarks about his scientific research, he stands in a kind of stark Copernican relief next to his peers.
Juxtaposed between the many agonizing gallery tour scenes, Wiseman records the refreshing straight talk and glum, but at least frank, corporate speak that takes place behind closed doors. At a staff meeting the marketing department struggle to articulate a corollary, for promotional or commercial purposes, between the museum and a marathon that will end in Trafalgar Square in front of the museum. The director isn’t persuaded of the potential benefit of the museum being aligned with such a populist sporting event. He frets that this sort of partnership “actually looks as if one’s just short of cash.” Almost immediately one can feel the flush of shame rising up every upwardly mobile, British, middle-class cheek in the room. This same concern about appearances is apparently abandoned when accepting sponsorship from the oil industry or addressing a group of patrons regarding the merits of a Poussin. He points out that the painting is “done for people who think about art in a very sophisticated way,” also “this picture is very, very elitist,” and that it is “painted for an extremely sophisticated and probably very small public.” In the middle of this fawning speech he helpfully, albeit disingenuously, notes that “making it accessible is quite hard work.” Indeed. To be fair, how can one ever be sure if he is being ironic, satirical, ingratiating, patronizing, clever, or all of the above at once?
Undoubtedly National Gallery , like the museum it represents, is a project that—like much of life—is more satisfying with the more one brings to it. To do that, one merely has to have a functioning brain, some capacity for critical thought, and enjoy formulating rhetorical questions for which no answers will be found in Wiseman’s lengthy film.. For example, what constitutes a so-called “old master”? Is it simply that this individual be white, male, European, and producing paintings prior to 1900 that were collected by other white, European males who amassed a fortune in the slave trade? (Certainly then the term “old master” begins to sound like a double entendre.) What of Russia, the Middle East, Africa, India, China, South Asia, or the Americas? Was no “masterful art” produced in these geographic locations between the mid-13th century and 1900? What of photography and its early 19th century beginnings in England? How much longer can these kinds of institutions survive, thrive, or grow with any integrity when governments are seemingly intent on privatizing or abolishing all public service? Perhaps most important, in light of the example explored in this film, how can the public be convinced to urge their governments to support them?
In the end, London’s National Gallery reminds one of the downside of historical preservation efforts, however noble; be it a collection of antique paintings, ossified art history rhetoric, or both. When any such effort is taken to its hysterical extreme, one can almost hear a sigh of mournful lamentation: “Let’s just stop here, our best years are behind us.” Likewise, millions find comfort retreating into the cozy nostalgia of a narrow worldview, protected by a coat of archival varnish, and enveloped in a Xanax-like atmospheric haze. Meanwhile, the miseries, inequalities, injustices, subterfuge, et al of Western history, rendered in the exhibited “old master” paintings, continue to be repeated on the other side of the gallery wall; in the museum’s administrative offices and, of course, far beyond. Yet, Wiseman’s film serves as a cheerless but extremely important reminder of the dangers of burying one’s head in the sand. Were all available cultural options similar to the National Gallery’s languorous charter and pedagogy, imagine the fate of those who understand the troubling dichotomy a museum of this kind embodies. It’s not hard to envision them searching for a length of rope and inspecting the rafters for a sturdy beam that can withstand their weight.
Chuck Mobley is a director, producer, and writer living in San Francisco. He is the former executive director of the nonprofit art space SF Camerawork. Visit his personal website at www.chuckmobley.com.
by Max Goldberg
One could do a lot worse than Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery for a virtual tour of the storied London art museum. Here is Michelangelo and Velazquez, Vermeer and Rembrandt, Holbein and Turner, the crowds queuing up in Trafalgar Square for a special exhibition and the lonely corridors after closing time. Ever the structuralist, Wiseman’s montage moves easily from black-tie galas to elementary school field trips, administrative wangling to figure drawing classes (one conspicuous absence: the gift shop). It’s a sufficiently broad array to ensure that we grasp the institution’s overall complexity, but Wiseman is primarily concerned with those workers engaged to interpret the canvas: the preparator considering the fall of light on a triptych, the docent guiding a crowd a museumgoers through the innumerable details and mysteries littered across a masterpiece, and the conservator contending with the endless vagaries of pigment.
The film’s three-hour running time is the result of hearing out these skilled readers, with pride of place given to the docents, whose edifying communication skills compare favorably with the museum director’s pompous drone and a clutch of art historians parsing the minutia of Watteau’s musical knowledge, and a brilliant conservator who literally plumbs the depths of the old master canvases. Characteristically for Wiseman, much of what these people say doubles back on the film itself. “He is unlike many of his colleagues in that he does show all strata of society.” That is an art historian holding forth Pissarro (to a class of blind art enthusiasts, no less), but it might well apply to Wiseman’s census-like approach. The conservationist concern with “analyzing the layer structure” of a canvas similarly resonates with Wiseman’s method, and a docent’s observation as to Holbein’s subtle mix of “observation and imagination” anticipates a ballet sequence which, occurring late in the film and seemingly not a public performance, unfolds as a plaintive daydream. Then there are those instances in which Wiseman’s editing seems to illustrate a speaker’s point—about the importance of floor reflections, for example, or how a painting is liable to appear differently each time it is viewed (we revisit Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and George Stubbs’ wondrous Whistlejacket several times over the course of the film).
Perhaps most interestingly, the conservator’s discussion of how a centuries-old yellow varnish warms the overall composition while obscuring the subtle play of dark shades cannot help but evoke related controversies over the juked-up glare found in many digital “restorations” of once photochemical films. Indeed, the digital nature of this National Gallery is very much at issue as we struggle to discern the fine tonalities and textures discussed by the conservator. Regardless of whether Wiseman anticipated this frustration, it gives rise to an unusual degree of formal awareness; suddenly the digital window does not seem so transparent. Cutting between the faces of museumgoers and those depicted in the paintings, we begin to realize that both are representations, one no more real than the other.
National Gallery offers plenty of evidence of Wiseman’s continued virtuosity, and yet I left it dogged by the genteel turn in his filmmaking. To be sure, the documentarian doesn’t shy away from the gruesome aspects of many of the National Gallery’s paintings—to say nothing of its debts to the slave trade—but the fact remains that Boxing Gym (2009) was his last picture with much grit. Wiseman’s work demands to be considered in its aggregate, but after recent turns with the ballet (La Dance ), cabaret (Crazy Horse ), university (At Berkeley ), and the museum, one wonders if he is done with the hospital, the welfare office, and the prison.
Max Goldberg writes about cinema for a variety of publications and works as an archivist. He recently cataloged San Francisco filmmaker Warren Sonbert’s papers for the Harvard Film Archive and currently works in the Conceptual Art Study Center at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Much of his writing can be found at mgoldberg.net.
Visit EatDrinkFilms next week for de Young Museum and Legion of Honor director Colin B. Bailey’s take on Mike Leigh’s new film about JMW Turner, Mr. Turner.
For more about Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films, click here.
Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse is available for viewing at Fandor.