Film Review: “The National Gallery” by Frederick Wiseman

This film documentary will not win Oscars. It lasts three hours. Its pace is slow. There is no drama, nor tension. It appeals to a very small niche, not crowds. Yet all this, does not make it unpalatable.

Frederick Wiseman’s recent fly-on-the-wall film gives you a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of a big museum. Or rather: a tiny impression of what goes on, in and around a huge one.

For London’s National Gallery is  huge. With over 2000 paintings, exhibitions which draw crowds willing to queue for hours in appalling weather, renowned research and training departments, and much more, this museum is not an ordinary nor an average one. It belongs to the top.

The documentary film is not as hilarious as the recent Dutch documentary series – turned into a four-hour-long film – about the “new” Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. My museum colleagues and I were not the only ones reduced to tears of laughter, by the architect-designer falling asleep during each totally boring meeting.

Nor were we the only ones shocked at the enormous amount of money this renovation project cost. From this documentary, it became clear much of this was spent on painting and repainting and painting and repainting and – you get the idea – of the same walls within the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. (This project took 10 years and cost over 375 million Euro.)

No, “The National Gallery” is not that hilarious, nor shocking. It’s far more impressive and interesting. Okay, there are the usual time-wasters you see talking to management and others, who should be told: GET TO THE POINT! You will come across such people in any corporation, institution, board, meeting.

There were also a few fragments showing how terribly nerdy, weird, and extremely elitist the arts and museum world can be. However, most museum staff and talented artists are actually jolly, down-to-earth, and very approachable folks.

“The National Gallery” opens with cleaners preparing the museum for opening. When you visit a museum, you will probably forget that it opens at ten or eleven, but that a crowd of cleaners, security people, and other staff have already been working behind the scenes for hours – to ensure you will have a pleasant visit.

From the cleaners, the focus shifts to management and meetings, guides talking about pictures, you the public (asleep and snoring, or wide awake), exhibitions, educational guides explaining art to school classes, art workshops and history of art lectures, the museum being used to create documentaries or as a background for ballet and other performances – including protest demonstrations – , the restoration departments, and much more.

It was fascinating to see how art was and is displayed. We tend to forget that paintings and other exhibits were probably never intended to be shown as we see them now. Next time I visit Rockox’ house, now a museum in Antwerp, I will certainly try to find out the original room for which Rubens painted his “Samson and Delilah” discussed in this film.

The film shows a few aspects of the restoration process. I’m not sure about you, but touching-up a painting with a tiny brush, on a special coat of varnish, is not my idea of fun. Especially not, when your months of work can be wiped off in minutes to ensure future generations will be able to take even better care of the painting.

It was also interesting to see how Rembrandt re-used a canvas. We think of a painting as fixed, static. We may know that certain pigments and paints deteriorate faster than others. But that Rembrandt’s economy caused odd restorations in the past, as well as his previous painting on the same canvas to reappear … He might have been amused.

My first experience with an exhibition for the blind and partially sighted, decades ago, was actually in London’s National Portrait Gallery. It’s right next door to the National Gallery. It was also my only one so far. It was a revelation to watch the art class for the partially sighted and blind in this film. American and English museums are way ahead in everything, compared to many European museums – and not only in providing such art classes.

The film touches lightly on problems museums face with other people’s events, fund-raising, planning meetings about the next year and next year’s budget and organising special events for sponsors. Much else what goes on behind the museum scenes was not shown.

All this is of course very fascinating for people like me, who love art and museums and dream of working at museums like London’s National Gallery. The only thing which I thought should have been cut short or even totally left out, was the pretentious ballet between two Diana paintings. This ends the docu-film. I’d have preferred a shot of security staff closing down “shop”.

Other members of the audience, though undoubtedly also belonging to the small niche of art and museum lovers, found three hours far too long and too taxing. After roughly one-and-a-half hours, people started to leave.

So if you are truly in love with art and museums, or perhaps work in a museum, this documentary is fascinating. If you’re not – think twice: the Guardian’s reviewer dubbs it “crushingly dull”.

“The National Gallery”, a docu-film by Frederic Wiseman, 2015, lasts three hours. Currently shown in cinemas throughout Europe.
London’s National Gallery website
London’s National Portrait Gallery website


5 thoughts on “Film Review: “The National Gallery” by Frederick Wiseman

    • It’s quite interesting & I’m going to download it. By the way, just read the review of this film on the New Statesman’s website. Didn’t know Frederick Wiseman was well over 80! Review is quite a lovely read, very sympathetic.

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