Masterpiece Theater: National Gallery

11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

National Gallery
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

The first painting shown in the latest entry in Frederick Wiseman’s half-century-young cinematic encyclopedia is the Renaissance altarpiece The Incredulity of St. Thomas. Starring Jesus Christ and a famous doubter for whom seeing wasn’t believing, it’s a sly way of beginning National Gallery, which was shot in London’s renowned art institution but is not a mere celebratory tour of the salubrious effects of museumgoing. Wiseman’s film explores art’s fragility and its beauty, and how the two are inextricably bound, and even more than many of his features (among which Central Park or Zoo or Ballet stand out as kin) it’s constantly presenting and demonstrating new ways of seeing and understanding.

While that whippersnapper Godard may be getting a lot of ink lately as a master of quotations and references, Wiseman remains a preeminent collage artist of the world at large, and the museum’s centuries of masterpieces and extraordinary scholars present untold riches to work with. Fashioned from the work of Da Vinci, Titian, Turner, Holbein, Velazquez—the list goes on—and tours given by guides and scholars, National Gallery is at once a dense, ideal visit and a restless essay on aesthetics, brought alive by the bustling matrix of perspectives that is the viewing public. While plenty of experts are on hand to walk us through terrifically insightful journeys through the paintings, Wiseman’s symphonic film is structurally held together, and made cinematically vibrant, through maybe the most reaction shots ever put together in a feature film—art and thought both put on display.

National Gallery is constantly playing with (and punning on) the notion of perspectives and points of view, on and off the canvas and screen, but Wiseman is also pursuing a more readily apparent line of thinking with an editorial clarity that At Berkeley presaged with its focused examination of the changing place of public institutions in American life. The arguments and analysis within his films have generally been undertaken on an editorial level just beyond casual perception—which his own typically large temporal canvas has helped make possible—but his latest begins explicitly by touring the manifold methods of approaching a painting: as object of beauty, “sacramental channel,” psychological study, one of several possible stories about a subject, even as a kind of marriage proposal (per one Holbein portrait). Wiseman even figures out a fresh way of tracing the vectors of motion and color within a painting through the unlikely technique of a hands-on art appreciation class for the blind.

After about an hour of finding more angles on approaching art than most whole features do, National Gallery withdraws somewhat to look at paintings as material objects and to trace the contours of their context (from budgets to political protests to the very picture frames that hold the art). A mind-bending work of ecphrasis, this is also a curious, even brave, work in acknowledging the limits of cinema in representing what’s before us (though the sensitivity to skin tone is notable). But we also learn the limits to defining any given painting as a stable artwork, through what might be called the hermeneutics of art restoration, by which layers of varnish materialize into the meaning of a shadow.

Wiseman also situates painting as seen through, by, and besides other arts—a Beethoven recital, sculpture, mise-en-abyme poetry, and finally, a pas de deux. And like many of the subjects on view here, National Gallery is itself a virtuoso performance by an old master.

Opens November 5 at Film Forum