Victory at Trafalgar Square
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