Is the National Gallery Film Really a Masterpiece?

One of the pleasures of living in London is the opportunity for frequent visits to the National Gallery. But for those who live elsewhere you need no longer miss out as a new documentary about that institution is now playing at movie theaters on both sides of the Atlantic. And, of course, a movie about such a treasure house of art must be a picture to behold, right? Or, is it a case of the audience being framed?

National Gallery is the work of the veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It took years to make and is being lauded as a great movie, not least by the film critic of the New York Times who named it as one of the best films of 2014. In fact, the critical reaction has been almost universally positive, and so, for me at least, all seemed set for a cinematic experience that was going to prove quite something—a masterpiece perhaps?

If you are worried about any potential spoilers, rest assured there is no plot. Now, you may rightly respond that: “of course there is no plot, it is a documentary after all.” Not so. Documentary films in the last decades have, at times, eclipsed their fictional counterparts for drama and suspense, poignancy and emotion—and all of it real. Well, “realish,” nothing is really real when a movie camera is stuck in the middle of it. I say all this because this movie was not what I expected, even by the standards of a documentary; not at all.

One senses, whether intentional or not, there is a sense of humor trying to escape in this movie. The only thing is that the real joke here is the idea of “marketing” the National Gallery—as if Leonardo, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio et al need a marketing campaign. However, it is no doubt something like this that promoted the gallery to let the filmmakers have access in the first place. And I suspect therein lay the problem. There is nothing revelatory about the film, nothing at all. In fact, it is all pretty tame stuff. It’s saying something when the highlight for this viewer came on recognizing a member of the public caught on film.

national_galleryBut, unfortunately, there are few other surprises in this. Curators lecturing the public on a certain painting, and in turn lecturing us. I wouldn’t have minded so much if the camera had stayed on the subject under consideration. But instead it remains with the lecturer, each of whom were knowledgeable enough and animated to a degree, but this is the stuff of radio or a podcast not the big screen. The fact that the same “talking heads” keep popping up again and again began to get more than a bit trying. That said, this does seem to happen when I visit the Gallery. There I stood minding my own business whilst quietly contemplating the work of a master when suddenly that particular gallery is flooded with people accompanied by an “expert,” usually a woman with a high-pitched voice, to “tell us all about it.” The “telling,” I thought, was in the act of looking; needless to say, at that point, I make my excuses and leave. No such luck for the audience of this film, however.

What we have is a sort of “fly on the wall” documentary, only there is not enough “fly” and too many walls, and nothing that reveals anything: behind the scenes or in front of the house. Early on what we do have, however, is a sequence where the Gallery’s director is being bombarded by his marketing person in language that for those of us who don’t work in PR should have been subtitled. It sounded like the nonsense that passes for thought in many of today’s corporate boardrooms with the inevitable look of pain on the Gallery chief’s face speaking volumes. Indeed, it was a “look” that should have been framed.

There was a point when we were taken behind the scenes of the Gallery’s restoration department. For those of us that know nothing about this process, it was an exciting prospect given the cloak of mystery wrapped around the arcane rituals practiced there. We saw some of the restorers at work. I was looking forward to being enlightened and at last set free from my ignorance. Alas, by the end I was more baffled than when I had started watching, especially when the person in charge of that department told a visiting group that restoration was most definitely NOT about restoring a masterpiece to its original state. Really? I thought that’s exactly what it was—the clue being in the word “restoration.” When he went on to talk about “interpretation” and other such matters as being “key,” I realized what a fool I had been all these years. Still, as I say, I was confused—still am.

Confusing too was the structure of the film. It felt more like television movie, only not as well done. As already noted, not quite “fly on the wall” but not much else: no visitor was interviewed, and no one spoke very much other than the aforementioned gallery art historians, and the PR woman. (She reappears, bringing a smile to the lips even if her words were, to me at least, still unintelligible.) There are shots of the exterior, over and over, night and day, hardly the stuff of big screen documentary filmmaking, and especially so when it was the same shot—the front of the Gallery on Trafalgar Square. There were shots of the interior too: some with people, some without. To be honest, I can get all that by taking a walk down there tomorrow.

In short, there was nothing revelatory, nothing at all: a blank canvas, in fact. I hoped that I was going to learn something about the paintings as much as anything. I didn’t. I did learn the Gallery’s PR department is full of energy “going forwards.” I learned that now they have people who play piano in the middle of the gallery; that they have a ballet performance of sorts there too, and a poet who discoursed at length on her poetry about a particular artwork with the camera locked on her more than the source of the inspiration—as to why all this was here, in the gallery let alone the movie, was never explained; nor, for that matter, the reason why so much screen time was devoted to it.

And talking of timeless pieces of art, at nearly three hours running time, this movie is way too long. Sadly, even at that length, in the end, I was none the wiser about the treasures held in the gallery, but perhaps I was expecting too much. I mean when you think about the centuries of paintings hanging on its walls—each one as unforgettable as it is unique—then what was any film going to do for that?

There were touching moments: an art appreciation class for the blind; the look of contemplation of members of the public who came in all shapes and sizes; the way the camera caught the moment of transformation when the eyes of the beholder were held by a work of art that had been doing just that, in some cases, for centuries. The real power of what is hung on the walls of the National Gallery was lost, however, in this cinematic jumble of images and noises. In fact, when, at last, the screen did fall silent, and the camera focused on a painting, then something of the magic of the place began to seep in, but it was only momentary. We were soon back to the “noise.”

The movie is not classified; however, there is footage of classes sketching nudes (both male and female). As with those attending the class, nothing is left to the imagination of the viewer, but it is all anatomical, and inadvertently funny when an ill at ease female class tutor nervously tries to tell a class member, one sat drawing a fully naked man, how ‘liberating’ it all is—all very British. The sole thing the addition of these classes in the finished film reveal is that the central heating system at the National Gallery is also world class.

Would I recommend it? For those within striking distance of the National Gallery, or for those planning a trip to London in the near future, then please just visit the gallery. Not only is it something you won’t regret, its free! For those who are destined never to do either then it might be of interest, but consider the video rather than the big screen as then you can fast forward through the “blue skies thinking.”

The movie’s final shot is a self-portrait of an elderly Rembrandt. He stares out at the viewer with a weary look of disappointment. Believe me, having sat through this film I knew just how he felt.

K. V. Turley


K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker.

  • Scott W.

    The fact that the same “talking heads” keep popping up again and again began to get more than a bit trying

    Sounds like something similar to Ken Burn’s jazz documentary, where the music fades or cuts and there, yet again, is Wynton Marsalis in full pontification mode.

  • Anglicanæ

    Better yet, on a related note, traditionalist British philosopher Roger Scruton produced a great BBC documentary called “Why Beauty Matters” – a critical look at modern “art” versus true art:

    It’s free! And he’s not boring.

    • St JD George

      I’ve never been drawn to modern art, or even impressionism. Late last year I read this article from the Schulberg gallery in NY and thought – oy vey. Not to slander all modern art with the same broad brush, but if there ever was an emperor has no clothes equivalent in art, this was it. I can’t imagine the conversations of those walking past admiring it.

      • Anglicanæ

        I share the opinion that most art from Picasso onward has been a failed experiment in navel-gazing futility. There are thankfully revivalists of the classical/realist school in our day who see the bankruptcy of calling anything ejaculatory from the heart and hands of man real art.

        Francis Schaeffer once noted that even in Rome, prior to its fall, debased its own art and aesthetic sensibilities. Prevalence of bad art and architecture (and music) is usually a sign that a fundamental seismic shift has occurred in the culture. But this is the way of leftist ideologies: the gods have been conquered, man is the center and source of the ideal, whatever that may be.

        • Well, my experience with modern art was enriched a few years ago. Going to visit the fine arts museum in Houston, because of road work being done in front of it, patrons had to go in through the modern art equivalent and use the underground tunnel to enter. Appreciating the modern art collection was lauded by at the ticket office as a free perk. We then decided to check it out. While my wife checked out an installation with mirrors that was similar to those in carnivals, I sat down on a couch in front of a huge canvas painted white. Moments later, a security guard walked to me and told me to not sit on the artwork. Enough said.

          • Anglicanæ

            That was truly funny. Thanks for sharing!

          • St JD George

            I’ll second that … it made me chuckle out loud. Would they have said anything if you were caught leaning up the blank canvas too?

          • Anglicanæ

            Reminds me of the time a couple of years ago I took my family to a museum in South Florida, and it had the yawn-worthy obligatory “progressive” art exhibitions on the lower levels (fitting, I suppose).

            Well, to teach my then 6 year old boy why it was not real art, we went into one of the rooms and discovered what could only be described as wedding party gone awry: a large dining table with dishes strewn all about, junk on the ground, what have you. Truly horrible art.

            Another family in the same room had what looked like a four year-old boy running around, and he tripped on something protruding from the “piece” and moved it — the mother was startled and said something to the effect, “Be careful! You’ll destroy the art.” Without missing a beat I looked at her and said, “Madam, there’s nothing you can do to this art to ruin it.”

            I didn’t even wait to see how she reacted; I turned around quickly and exited with my innocent six year old.

        • St JD George

          Thanks for finding that … I never saw the retraction, and actually am glad to be wrong in this case given the theater of the absurd aspect of it.

          • Anglicanæ

            A big thanks to my wife. Being at work I can’t really watch videos, so I only read the content quickly. I sent her the link and in about two minutes she texted me: “FAKE!!!”

            • St JD George

              I usually do that on emails that contain “to good to be true” stories with SNOPES. Having read this in the main stream media I never doubted (egad, what an admission).

  • Having recently visited the Met in NYC, it was disappointing to see how untrained the youth are to contemplate a painting. All they manage to do was to snap pictures with their phone of one painting after another. In this age when visual communication reached a summit, I’d think that a painting’s thousands of words could be read by everyone; alas, they seemingly were just added to the cacophony of noise in young hearts.

  • St JD George

    In my trips to London (now in the distant past) I never made it there sadly. But then as you know when there is so much to see and do it takes prioritization and I was drawn to the churches and other “top spots” (ha). I spent more time in the galleries on my trips to Paris. I do think that these are treasures and are blessed to have them in our communities even if in lesser cities with less notoriety and “big names”. Unfortunately, partially as Augustine refers to, in tourist centers there are parades of people who are there to rush through being on a time budget (myself included), or are on school field trips and are captive but not all together interested. The joy is being able to go from time to time to enjoy in small doses or to see travelling exhibits one wouldn’t other wise see. My personal tastes go more towards Rodin, and especially Frederick Remington.

  • kam counts

    I went with my son on his school trip. I remain illiterate in beholding this type of art. The trip was focused on the artists behind the art not he art itself. Such is life, its the end result not the journey that people aspire too!

    Consider the current events in paris. A number of races were being eliminated, yazdis and so on. Nothing. 11 europeans are killed and there are millions on the streets including politicians from various countries!

    Why did those guys wear masks. All the others showed their faces as they wanted to be acknowledged.

    Also when someone is shot in the head by a bullet as big as your little finger there is a lot of blood splatter.

    Finally how could these guys move about without cctv coverage. Why are we not seeing that as well as the surrounding of their location

    Sorry gone off track.