The other day I caught up with Frederick Wiseman’s epic documentary about the National Gallery, shown recently on BBC 4. In characteristic fly-on-the-wall style, Wiseman spent much of 2012 prowling the corridors, boardrooms and backrooms of the National Gallery, having been given exclusive access to film anything that took his fancy.
Myself and Fred Wiseman and I go back a long way. In the early 1970s, as an adult and community education organiser, I achieved the remarkable feat of obtaining packed houses for screenings of Wiseman’s documentaries on American policing, welfare and juvenile courts in Liverpool 8. Quite what relevance I thought these lengthy perusals of American institutions had to the local situation I can’t now recall – those who filled the room in the Rialto Community Centre on those nights presumably went home having gained something from the experience.
In fact, those early documentaries made by Wiseman – now aged 85 – were like nothing being made in Britain at the time. They were films that examined American institutions – a hospital, a high school, army basic training, inner-city policing, the New York City welfare system – in a way that gradually (over two hours or more) revealed the profound injustices and inequalities of American society. At the same time they reflected back to an inner-city Liverpool audience the reality in their own community. As Philippe Pilard has remarked:
Fred Wiseman is probably one of today’s greatest living documentary film-makers. For close to thirty years … he has created an exceptional body of work consisting of thirty full length films devoted primarily to exploring American institutions. Over time these films have become a record of the western world, since now more than ever as we approach the century’s close, nothing North American is really foreign to us.
If that makes Wiseman sound like a strident agitprop film-maker, nothing could be further from the truth. His films eschew any kind of argumentative structure or externally-imposed narration; no captions or spoken words explain what is going on or who people are. On first impressions at least, the approach appears to be one of complete objectivity. This is not John Pilger.
Wiseman has explained his aversion to narration in these terms:
I don’t like it. For me, I mean. It works perfectly well for someone else to have an interviewer or narration. But I like the idea of trying to represent what is actually going on. Of course, it’s not exactly that, because it’s edited and shot with different kinds of lenses. But when a film of mine works, it works because the viewer feels like they’re present. It’s my job to give them enough information so they can understand what’s going on.
But, although Wiseman’s films are often referred termed observational (or ‘fly on the wall’, there is a hand at work, selecting and shaping the material. Wiseman again:
What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinéma vérité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinema verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned.
After his early documentaries – Hospital (1969), Law and Order (1969), Basic Training (1971) Juvenile Court (1973) and Welfare (1975) – I lost touch with Wiseman, though he has continued to produce films focussing on a particular American institution through succeeding decades. Sight and Sound’s review of National Gallery summed up his record:
Frederick Wiseman is something like the Methuselah prophet in this weft, a tireless, methodical monk inserting his camera into every quotidian alleyway of modern life for 47 years now, compiling a vast Alexandrian archive of the Way We Live Now – which of course has changed with the decades. Usually focusing on institutions and the subcultures that feed them, Wiseman has always neglected quirk and extravagance, looking instead at work, ageing, illness, commerce and personal catastrophe.
On first impressions National Gallery seems to share the characteristics of Wiseman’s early films – documenting the internal workings of a major national institution using the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach. It’s nearly three hours long, and scenes are presented in long takes. There is no voice-over narration, no captions or explanatory text outlining who is who and what they do, no interviews or talking heads.
But, we are in a new golden age of widescreen documentary films that regularly garner healthy audiences. While Wiseman began making his films only a few years after technical advances made it possible to shoot synchronised sound documentaries with available light, now National Gallery is filmed using high definition digital cameras, and – in common with present-day documentaries – has the glossy look of a feature film.
Another significant difference might appear to be the nature of the institution which Wiseman has in his sights: instead of the social or regulatory institutions of the earlier films (police, welfare, schools, courts) and the concern with inequality and injustice, with National Gallery the focus is on one of the world’s great cultural institutions and the frankly elite world of art appreciation.
In fact, several of Wiseman’s recent films (which I have not seen) have been concerned with cultural or elite institutions – the University of California at Berkeley, the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris, and the American Ballet Theatre, for example. Moreover, as National Gallery spools on (if that’s not an inappropriate analogue analogy), a critique of the gallery and the art world generally slowly begins to emerge. As Laura Cummings wrote in her insightful Observer review:
His film has no narrative, and apparently no structure in its steady flow of images. It looks at everything – the polished floor, the dazzling picture, the scalpel removing an iota of dirt from the surface of a canvas – with equal interest. It peers, gazes, homes in and moves on like the visitors circulating slowly among the paintings. It has not formed an opinion so far – or has it?
Because, of course, Wiseman doesn’t simply present us with raw footage: his authorship is in the editing. It’s what he chooses to show us (or, for that matter, leave out) that allows Wiseman’s themes or arguments to gently emerge.
The film raises a number of issues related to both the creation and consumption of art. Wiseman’s camera stares as Nicholas Penny, the director of the Gallery at the time, talks effusively about the Titians in the collection during a private audience with a silk-suited plutocrat, presumably a donor. It’s there when Penny hosts private drinks parties among the old masters, and there’s a memorable episode which takes us behind the scenes as the museum’s management team discusses whether to allow Sports Relief to advertise by draping a large banner across the front of the gallery during the London marathon.
Penny argues against advertising on the grounds that there should be some sort of link between what is being advertised and gallery’s mission, while others on his team are up for anything which raises the gallery’s brand profile among the public at large. The question of commercialization is a crucial one, and – although Penny comes across as decidedly elitist, you sense that Wiseman’s sympathies lie with the idea of the gallery’s essential role as the guardian of great art, and not with PR and marketing forces keen to popularize (or ‘dumb down’ in Penny’s view) the gallery’s mission.
The film doesn’t explore the political challenges of funding and maintaining such cultural institutions in a time of austerity and public spending cuts, though Wiseman does come at such questions tangentially when we observe a guide informing a class of ethnically diverse schoolchildren that the collection was founded by those who profited from slavery, and during scenes in which high-profile funders and donors (emphatically white and upper class) are given privileged access to the gallery and its experts.
Filming in 2012, Wiseman could not have anticipated the bitter industrial dispute now raging at the gallery. Since March there have been a series of extended strikes in which members of the Public and Commercial Services union are fighting the National Gallery’s plans to privatise 400 of the 600 staff – with a two-week strike beginning this week. Already a private company has been handed the services usually provided by in-house visitor services staff and the gallery has gone back on a promise to pay the London living wage this year and is now the only major museum or gallery in London not to do so. As Polly Toynbee put it in the Guardian two months ago:
The gallery is outsourcing all its 400 staff in visitor services, including the gallery assistants, many of whom have worked there for years, becoming steeped in knowledge about the paintings they watch over. Once outsourced, the staff can by law be dispersed to anywhere by their new employer: people with long experience of guiding visitors can be sent to guard a supermarket car park. New staff taken on in the gallery can be paid less, with worse conditions: that’s how outsourcing works.
I wonder how many of the guides who we see in Wiseman’s film – gifted communicators who inspire audiences of adults and children with their enthusiasm for the paintings – are now fighting for their jobs. Some of the best scenes feature these educators (without one in particular, a feisty woman wearing a Ruritanian cavalry jacket and immense belt, Wiseman would not have had a film). There is a tremendous sequence in which a group of visually-impaired people are given a Pissarro reproduction, printed in relief, which they can navigate with their hands, while one of the these gifted staff brings the image alive. Certainly, Wiseman dwells on these scenes long enough to show where his admiration lies.
But he is also drawn to the meticulous work of the frame makers, and those who clean, restore and care for the paintings. Watching these people at work, by the end of the film I felt I had learnt a great deal about the efforts that go on behind the scenes in a great gallery to protect and preserve the artworks.
One of the high points in this regard is a scene in which two Velázquez experts explain how, during the conservation of the painting, once old varnish has been removed, all their retouching is done on top of a newly-applied layer of varnish, just in case the next generation of experts happens to disagree with their interpretation.
Wiseman lingers over this dedication to detail and craft in scenes such as one in which a conservation expert speaks about the complex and fascinating history of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Hedel to a group of art historians, demonstrating with the aid of X-Ray scans the progressive stages in the painting’s development, and revealing how Rembrandt had painted over a previous image before turning the canvas sideways and beginning again.
Essentially, Wiseman’s focus returns time and again to the paintings: the film is punctuated by short sequences in which the camera gazes (all too briefly) at paintings and observes the varied expressions of visitors looking at them. For Laura Cummings, however, this was not enough:
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.
In the end, Wiseman seems to suggest, the essential role of the National Gallery is to safeguard the work of great artists for succeeding generations, and to interpret and communicate their meaning to the public. In one interview Wiseman put it this way:
The point of the film is not to make a case about anything. But I would hope that someone watching the film would come away with the idea that the National Gallery is an important institution, and the critical importance to society of maintaining the heritage of the paintings. Some of the greatest painters in the world are represented there.
Sometimes Wiseman’s camera observes as another media team film before a painting – as when art historian Matthew Collings casts aside his notes and in characteristic style delivers an analysis of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.
In a review of National Gallery written by Glenn Kenny on Roger Ebert.com, Kenny noted how the film begins with a series of shots of paintings that hang in the gallery – choosing to linger over Old Masters rather than the later works from the 19th century:
So immediately, as we perhaps recognize a Holbein or Rembrandt in the opening shots of the film, the movie draws us into an older world. But a familiar sound begins to break the silence that would create the ideal mood for contemplating these works. What is it? It gets louder, and soon Wiseman cuts to a wider shot of one of the gallery’s hanging rooms, and there’s a fellow operating a floor polisher.
This opening is a near-perfect encapsulation of Wiseman’s method. His camera work is as objective, or as “objective,” as it gets. […] Where he editorializes, or makes a point of declining to editorialize, is in his cutting. The opening invites the viewer into the realm of the sublime, then drops the viewer into the realm of the quotidian. This juxtaposition, Wiseman suggests, is a part of what makes the Gallery a noble institution.
Well, maybe. If so, it’s a nobility that is muddied by operating in less honourable contexts – paintings donated in the past by those who have grown rich from the profits of slavery, dependent now on money from companies that despoil the planet (there’s a short sequence in which Greenpeace activists rappelling down from the roof of the gallery to hang a large banner protesting at Shell sponsorship), and now contracting-out the jobs of front of house staff to a private company intent on imposing zero-hours contracts.
For a film that offers different kind of meditation on art and its meaning in everyday life I do recommend Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours set in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, the story of two strangers who meet in the gallery and gradually become friends as autumn turns to winter in the streets of Vienna.
- Zipporah Films: homepage of official distributor of Wiseman’s films
- National Gallery review – Frederick Wiseman focuses on the minutiae: Review by art critic Laura Cummings (The Observer)
- Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery: review for MUBI
- Film of the week: National Gallery: Sight and Sound
- Frederick Wiseman: ‘One common misconception is that I’m a muckraker. My films are more complicated than that‘ (Telegraph profile)