Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery takes the audience behind the scenes of a London institution and into the heart of a museum inhabited by masterpieces of Western art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. National Gallery is the portrait of a place, its way of working and relations with the world, its staff and public, and its paintings. In a perpetual and dizzying game of mirrors, film watches painting watches film.
To film paintings is an exceedingly complex issue, especially bearing in mind the large number of artworks, and Wiseman’s guiding principle was to break the frame in order to step into the picture. Wiseman alternates between wide shots and
close-ups, playing upon the depth of field in the paintings and allowing each piece to come to life and tell a story of its own.
Wiseman approached the National Gallery in particular due to its expansive collection which covers a significant segment of the history of painting in 2,400 works. The film, however, focuses upon human experience within the gallery and was filmed over the course of twelve weeks, twelve hours per day, to observe events before the museum opens and late at night – it is pure fly-on-the-wall strategy.
Running just shy of a mesmerising three hours, this detailed portrait of the gallery’s working life, looks at hierarchy, difficult financial decisions and its blockbuster exhibitions in 2012: Metamorphosis: Titian, Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude, and Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.
Frederick Wiseman: National Gallery, UK release January 2015.
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1. Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery (2014). Courtesy of Frederick Wiseman.