The antithesis of car-crash, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and ‘Gogglebox’ voyeurism, National Gallery, 2014, seasoned documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s record of what goes on both 'front of house' and behind the scenes at London’s National Gallery is as much a lyrical loveletter to great Old Master painting as it is an acknowledgement of the enthusiasm, dedication and expertise of those who curate and care for such collections.
Shot over three months in 2012, National Gallery's seamless editing and pacing ensures that, at three hours, the film never palls. Vignettes show staff engaged in various activities from explaining the restoration of a Rembrandt to discussion on how Ruben’s Samson and Delilah, 1609-10, would originally have been lit, to enthusing a group of under-tens in the gallery about the wonder of storytelling in painting. For the record (Wiseman avoids any captioning or explanatory voiceover) the person seen admirably holding the tots attention in the latter is regular ArtReview contributor Ben Street.
These scenes are punctuated with close-cropped images of visitors looking at paintings, and of the paintings themselves, many of them portraits, which linger just long enough on screen to give the viewer of the documentary the impression that it's they who are being scrutinised by the subjects of the paintings rather than the other way around.
Film clip - Larry Keith on Rembrandt Restoration - from National Gallery, 2014, Courtesy of Zipporah Films, in cinemas now, by Soda
15 January 2015