'National Gallery' looks at museum
This weekend you can visit one museum inside another museum.
That's because the Detroit Film Theatre, housed inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, will be showing director Frederick Wiseman's documentary "National Gallery," about that London art museum. And with a three-hour running time, you'll really get to know the place.
The revered Wiseman, who just turned 85, has a long history of showing up at institutions and just letting his camera roll, playing the fly on the wall and observing while prying into all the nooks and crannies he can find. In "National Gallery," he finds nooks and crannies aplenty, among them:
* An art appreciation class for the blind, in which special reproductions with raised images are distributed and hands feel their way over those images.
* A drawing class in which first a female and later a male nude model pose for students.
* Restorers working to wipe aged varnish off masterpieces likely worth millions, refitting classic baroque woodwork, retouching pieces with tiny, precise brush stabs.
* Curators and administrators arguing in meetings about conservative budgets, the tackiness of charity promotions and whether trying to reach a larger audience poses a danger of catering to a "lowest common denominator" mindset.
* A piano recital in one room, a dance recital in another, and a cocktail reception.
* The line of early bird museum-goers braving the cold for first admittance to a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit.
* The tinkering with lights, adjusting of frames and positioning that guarantees a work will be seen at its best.
And, of course, the paintings themselves. Hundreds of them float by. Sometimes Wiseman fills his camera with one and lingers, staring, appreciating; at other points he drifts from one to the next to the next, studying their juxtapositions, their place in space.
Then there are the humans looking at the paintings — kids to seniors, some plainly awestruck, others wearing headphones and following an audio guide, still others just sitting down, seemingly exhausted by it all.
Most engagingly there are the lecturers, artists and art historians, speaking authoritatively about particular paintings, artists or periods. For the most part, these people are both passionate and intelligent — a discussion of sunlight in a Turner verges on ecstatic — but here and there, someone seems full of hot air and one stammering fellow makes virtually no sense while trying to describe a frame-making technique. He's human. We're human.
Let's be honest, three hours is a bit of a slog, and things do get a touch repetitive. But just a touch.
For the most part, "National Gallery" is an intriguing look at how an art museum works and what art offers, with some nice context that makes it clear this is an institution, with all the complexities and nuts-and-bolts concerns of any institution. It is appreciation, examination and portrait all in one. Fascinating.
"National Gallery" (Not rated) Frederick Wiseman's three-hour look at the National Gallery art museum in London is appreciation, examination and portrait all in one. Overlong, but still fascinating. (180 minutes) GRADE: B