Vic­tory at Trafal­gar Square

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Na­tional Gallery, doc­u­men­tary, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles Veteran doc­u­men­tar­ian Fred­er­ick Wise­man takes an el­e­gant, mul­ti­lay­ered look inside one of London’s sem­i­nal art in­sti­tu­tions in Na­tional Gallery. There is no talk­ing to the cam­era and lit­tle in the way of nar­ra­tive. In­stead, Wise­man lets events at the mu­seum un­fold at a leisurely pace, tak­ing you on tour through pub­lic and pri­vate spa­ces for an in­for­ma­tive glimpse of the vast hold­ings. At times, you feel like a vis­i­tor, lis­ten­ing to the do­cents dis­cuss high­lights from the col­lec­tion in de­tail, and it is in th­ese mo­ments that the film feels like a crash course in art his­tory from the 13th cen­tury to the be­gin­ning of the mod­ern era. De­spite a three-hour run­ning time, this ex­pertly crafted doc­u­men­tary is ab­sorb­ing and of­fers up the next best thing to be­ing there in per­son. Re­gard­less of your fa­mil­iar­ity with what is on view, you are bound to come out of the theater know­ing much more than when you came in, and that in­cludes as­pects of the stag­ing and light­ing of ex­hibits, the gild­ing of hand­crafted pic­ture frames, and the painstak­ing work of paint­ing con­ser­va­tion.

Whether Wise­man turns his lens on mas­ter­works by Leonardo da Vinci, Ver­meer, Rubens, and a host of oth­ers or takes the cam­era be­hind the scenes, the ef­fect is like be­ing a fly on the wall. We meet sev­eral staff mem­bers over the long haul and, though we can guess at the var­i­ous roles they play, their ti­tles and po­si­tions are never stated. There are mar­ket­ing, event plan­ning, and bud­get meet­ings, of­ten presided over by di­rec­tor Ni­cholas Penny, a dig­ni­fied man of few words who pos­sesses an air of shrewd in­tel­li­gence. It is re­mark­able how can­did and nat­u­ral he and his staff seem. Not a sin­gle one be­haves as though they are on cam­era. Glimpses of the crowds in the ex­hibit halls show vis­i­tors in rapt at­ten­tion (and a few who look bored or in­dif­fer­ent). The faces in the paint­ings stare back just as many of them have since the mu­seum’s found­ing in the early 19th cen­tury and, for older works in the col­lec­tion, for cen­turies. One can imag­ine all of the in­sti­tu­tion’s silent por­traits bear­ing wit­ness to the pas­sage of years.

At times the cam­era lingers on de­tails of the fa­mous works: the star­tled ex­pres­sion in Car­avag­gio’s Boy Bit­ten by a Lizard, Élis­a­beth Vigée-Le­brun’s al­lur­ing Self-Por­trait in a Straw Hat, Gio­vanni Bat­tista Gaulli’s life­like Por­trait of Car­di­nal Marco Gallo, the in­tel­li­gent gaze of Leonardo’s Lady With an Er­mine, and so many oth­ers. Some of the more in-depth ex­po­si­tions by staff and do­cents in­clude eru­dite de­scrip­tions of Rubens’ Sam­son and Delilah, Hol­bein the Younger’s enig­matic The Am­bas­sadors, and Ti­tian’s Diana and Ac­taeon, based on the story as set down by the Ro­man poet Ovid in his Me­ta­mor­phoses. Ti­tian’s paint­ing de­picts Ac­taeon, a hunter, ac­ci­dently stum­bling upon the god­dess Diana while bathing, an act that in­curred her wrath. It hangs be­side another Ti­tian work, The Death of Ac­taeon, in which the hunter, trans­formed by Diana into a stag, is seen be­ing torn apart by his own hounds.

A con­ser­va­tor’s in­trigu­ing pre­sen­ta­tion to a group of stu­dents on Rem­brandt’s Por­trait of Fred­er­ick Ri­hel on Horse­back re­veals that the artist had orig­i­nally painted another com­po­si­tion be­neath, a fact dis­cov­ered through ra­dio­graphic imag­ing. Early in the film, a do­cent ex­plains to a tour group that a re­li­gious­themed paint­ing would have ap­peared very dif­fer­ent in its orig­i­nal set­ting from how it does to a mod­ern au­di­ence, which would be see­ing it in ar­ti­fi­cial light as op­posed to the can­dle­light that would have al­lowed the fig­ures to ap­pear almost alive in the flick­er­ing dance of light and shadow. There is also dis­cus­sion of the com­po­si­tional el­e­ments in J.M.W. Turner’s The Fight­ing Te­meraire, in­clud­ing its con­trasts be­tween bright and dark ar­eas. The paint­ing com­mem­o­rates a ves­sel in the fleet of the Royal Navy that played an im­por­tant role in the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar dur­ing the Napoleonic wars. The bat­tle it­self is com­mem­o­rated in London’s Trafal­gar Square, the lo­ca­tion of the Na­tional Gallery, mak­ing Turner’s paint­ing sig­nif­i­cant to na­tional iden­tity as well as to the col­lec­tion. No mat­ter how un­ob­tru­sively the cam­era seems to take in what hangs on the gallery walls, Wise­man seems to have care­fully se­lected what he chose to high­light.

The film earns your re­spect for the hard work of staff and vol­un­teers at the mu­seum and its com­mit­ment to the his­tory, preser­va­tion, and craft of art. As one do­cent puts it, “The bril­liant thing about art: It en­com­passes ev­ery­thing. It’s not just about ei­ther draw­ing or paint­ing; it’s about life.” Na­tional Gallery makes that clear, and not only deep­ens one’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for this par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion but for mu­se­ums ev­ery­where.

— Michael Abatemarco

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