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Glorious Gallery ׀ A Documentary About Britain's National Treasure
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Glorious Gallery ׀ A Documentary About Britain's National Treasure

Picture of Katy Sacks
Updated: 12 December 2015
Frederick Wiseman’s documentary going behind the screens of The National Gallery was a perfect ending to the VIEW: A Festival of Art History that recently took place at the Institut Français, focusing on the preservation and storytelling of Western Art. VIEW was a sold out three day event filled with tours of gallery exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, and debates, all with the intention to explore three main themes: Preserving & Restoring, Avant-Garde and Precursors and Defining Civilizations.
The National Gallery
The National Gallery | © Rept0n1x/Wikicommons

In attendance at VIEW were guests ranging from the everyday-art enthusiasts, to passionate artists who wanted to gain knowledge about other mediums, to professionals within the art world. It was an assemblage of people who wanted to expand their understanding of art further and develop their skills in how to interpret it; instead of enjoying art because it’s popular, understanding what makes art art. A question long time asked.

Wiseman’s documentary appropriately concluded the festival that celebrated the history of art. What had been a weekend of events focused on how to preserve art and value its importance in 21st century society, ended with a look towards the future and how the next generations are responsible for continuing the protection of these artifacts. The film is an expose into western art’s London home, a gallery to some of the world’s most valuable talent. For 180 minutes, there were meetings discussing the decisions that go into the planning and preparation of major events, even ones we overlook entirely, such as the decision for the London Marathon to end in front of the Gallery. We invade meetings regarding balancing the budget and the costs of working in an industry that is so expensive. The role of the curator is exaggerated as if finally explaining who they are and what they do, in a way that screams nobody pays them enough attention. The curator, we learn, is also involved in the ways the gallery is remodeled and designed to facilitate whatever the space may be needed for.

We watch facial expressions of tourists trying not to yawn, the janitor as the floors are polished at the end of the day, we become members of the public listening in on the masterful storytelling techniques of the Art Historians who stand over paintings and explain how it was made, why it was made, and what effect it has on us. We sit with groups of children and teenagers gathering to discuss works explained by “story time” and participate in classes offered to the blind that provide a brailed approach to reading a painting. In no way does the National Gallery not seem charitable, or broad in the ways it interacts with the public. In addition to the study of art in a theoretical sense, art classes, such as Life Drawing which Wiseman frequently revisits, provide encouragement and a community for avid artists who want to share their passion.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1916, private collection
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1916, private collection | © Flint PR

The intention of the film is sweet and dedicative. We are provided with an opportunity to admire our landmark, famous for its housing and depiction of the most visually stunning pieces of artistic history. The film is edited in a way that mimics how a tourist wanders through the National Gallery. Multitudes of quick shots of paintings we learn nothing about because Wiseman chooses to overlook them and move on, a decision we consider as “too much to see, so little time” which only emphasises the grandeur of the building and the thousands of artworks that hang on its walls that the audience have yet to discover. Instead, the director focuses on select pieces; exploring the different ways they are expressed with the public.

It is impossible to not be overwhelmed by the size of the exhibition halls or the hundreds of years of aesthetic history that hang under the roof. Yet every visit is a new learning opportunity. A deeper plunge into discovering more about the world we live in and continue to be a part of. Wiseman’s voiceover-less, score-less, three hour long stare down of the artistic institution is a blunt look at the transition from classical beauty into becoming a franchise, leaving it for the viewer to decide: once you watch the behind-the-scenes, is the magic still there?