You have to admit, the thought did cross your mind, that, in light of Charlie Hebdo, the Institut Francais could be a fitting target for a terrorist attack. But when you arrived, there was no increased security apparent, and as you took your seat in the Institut’’s Ciné Lumière the trailers rolled and you considered possible escape routes while imagining hooded gunmen entering the cinema and gunning down the audience. But once Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour cinematic portrait, National Gallery (2014), was under way you soon forgot current affairs and grisly fears, transported by wonderfully illuminated and enormously enlarged masterpieces of oil painting.
The paintings themselves are of course the stars of this movie but Wiseman was clearly impressed by the National Gallery’s seasoned team of educators as he filmed them passionately passing on deep knowledge and great enthusiasm for the collection to the daily crowds who lap-up their performance. You spent much of the film in a kind of rapture but there was one point at which you laughed out loud when a well-known TV art critic was filmed hastily knocking together, to order, and delivering with performative aplomb, an extra piece of interpretation (of a Turner painting) at the request of his own film’s director. This kind of thing may give art criticism and art history a bad name, confirming suspicions of sceptics that it is a load of unnecessary language, dubiously appended to works better left un-‘explained.’
Watching Wiseman’s film you get to study the profiles of punters experiencing the particular and private momentary revelation to be found only through study of art and its history. We have all felt our lives, values and vision miraculously transformed by a brief, passionate encounter in one of the world’s leading art museums. Here, ‘ordinary people’, usually focused on everyday banalities, responsibilities and technologies are seen temporarily transported to new heights while experiencing a revitalized gravitas resulting from their encounter with incomparable craft combined with the hundreds of years stretching away between today and the time in which these works were made. Under the humble public’s admiring gaze, art and life, then and now all seem to glow in the angelic light of posterity.
The paintings are of course lovingly maintained, repaired and cleaned by a world-class restoration team. Wiseman’s unobtrusive camera lingers around their fascinating activities, absorbing conversations as their sensitive, almost altruistic processes do all they can to rescue the works from the degradations of time and the errors of previous generations. In the process they expose hidden secrets about techniques and manufacture which, in their turn, extend and expand the semiotic anecdotes delivered by educators in the galleries.
The most disturbing aspect of the film is backstage wrangling over corporate sponsorship, budgets, marketing etc. One woman in particularly curdles your stomach as her endless, hermetically sealed; jargon-ridden sentences mendaciously pressurize those with more noble passions regarding the purpose of the collection into coming around to her market-oriented way of thinking. In her reprehensible Newspeak you hear the thinly veiled threat of the most antisocial strategies of Neoliberalism, claiming to champion the ‘consumer’ as a mythical figure deserving of a certain kind of ‘freedom’, which -it just happens- only the market, marketing and marketeers understands and can thus provide for. Other expertise and opinion is just an obstruction to this evangelical, all-quantifying juggernaut with an ice-cold hole where a heart should be.
Contrary to their own belief system the marketeers may be the biggest problem facing cultural development today as they extend the same mind-numbing strategy, indiscriminately, to each and every organization they penetrate, pretending to be equally “passionate” about the product at the heart of whatever is their current, lucrative assignment, be it an ailing department store or a gallery full of wondrous works of art. At least we know that the paintings in the National Gallery were not produced by people like this but by artists moved by higher values, with wonder in their eyes, graft on their brow and magic at their fingertips. The paintings and the painters of the collection might thus give us hope that great art and humanity might just live on, if only it can survive the highest tides of crass consumerism.
Hope of a better world briefly flickers again when Wiseman shows brave Greenpeace campaigners shimmying down ropes from the gallery’s portico to unveil a huge banner trumpeting disagreement with the gallery’s sponsorship by Shell Oil. Shell are increasingly self-assured about exploiting the Arctic wilderness to fuel millions more Americanised lifestyles for another few years. Ironically (as a friend who accompanied you later pointed out), survival of the gallery’s collection –like all collections held in the world’s great cities – is probably endangered more by automobile-polluted air than by any other financial or environmental factor. Perhaps the National Gallery’s marketing department hasn’t really thought this through?