Friday, October 24, 2014

National Gallery

NATIONAL GALLERY           B-                                             
USA  Great Britain  France  (181 mi)  2014  d:  Frederick Wiseman  

Paintings change, and how you look at them changes as well.

For those who would pay to sit through three-hours of what amounts to a series of art history and art restoration lectures from one of the great museums of the world, The National Gallery of London, featuring 2400 paintings from the 13th to the end of the 19th centuries (leaving more contemporary fare to the Tate Gallery, London), then this is the film for you, and must be considered invaluable for scholars, art historians and teachers who would find this of considerable use in the classroom.  But for those lovers of Frederick Wiseman movies, where certainly part of the beauty is the lack of explanation, but total immersion into a field of particular interest, this may come as a bit of a surprise, as there may be more non-stop verbal explanation in this movie than all the other Wiseman films combined, which surprisingly doesn’t allow for moments of introspection due to the continuous stream of verbal explanations.  For some, that will be a good thing, as film critics are near unanimous in offering high praise for this film, as it delves into a specific area of museum expertise, which is what the institutions are renowned for, but it comes up short on the cinema end, as after all the explanation, there is precious little time spent with the actual paintings themselves, literally a few seconds and that’s it—and then they move on, which feels very unlike a Wiseman film that usually allows for a meditative view of art, where it becomes a living and breathing entity.  But here it remains more of a historical concept, where Wiseman appears to be more interested in the ideas behind the paintings than the paintings themselves.  There’s an interesting point made early in the film as a curator discusses with Gallery director Nicholas Penny the need to make art exhibitions more accessible to the general public, as a certain educated segment of society will always visit museums unprompted, while another section of society has no idea what lies inside the hallowed hallways, where she questioned whether the museum was actually focusing on reaching those individuals.  Judging by this film, the answer is no, as this is really a scholarly approach, where the greater the education and familiarity with art in general, the greater one’s appreciation for the film.  But let’s not forget, due to budget restraints, one of the first cuts in the public school systems is eliminating art from the curriculum, where nations as a whole are setting a precedent devaluing art’s significance.  So the language of this film is simply not reaching that segment that remains unfamiliar with the value and appreciation for art. 

Unfortunately, when treated in this way, art only has value to the elite class, represented by the museum’s well-educated all-white staff, which historically was how many of these paintings originated, as only royalty or the church could afford to commission the great artists and buy and/or appreciate art, hanging it on the walls of their vast churches, castles and chateaus, as now it hangs on the walls of museums waiting for the public to find it.  Large exhibitions generate huge advertising dollars notifying the public of gallery openings, where enormous crowds stand in line where they are ushered through crowded exhibitions, often so crowded you can barely see the paintings, while the rest of the art world lies unseen behind obscure corridors in the museum that are never entered or explored.  One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the revelation explained by a tour guide to a group of racially mixed students that the foundation of the Gallery was funded in part because of the slave trade, where the gallery was built on profits from insuring slaves, where now the museum has its own isolated wing devoted to the “Slavery Collection.”  Nonetheless, few of the paintings discussed are even identified ahead of time, so unless the viewer is already familiar with the painting or the artist discussed, many viewers may not know what they’re talking about and will only get a brief glimpse afterwards.  Unlike other Wiseman films where the camera remains completely unobtrusive, nearly every speaker in the film is very well aware that the camera is pointed at them, where they often seem to be giving performances, shot in brief increments, as there are more and quicker edits in this film, contrary to the usual Wiseman methodology that prevents any practice of staging.  One of the tour guides identifies how a painting is a static moment in time all condensed into a single image, while some novels may take 6 months to read, sticking with the reader for the entire duration, or feature length movies may unwind over several hours.  But when one glances at a painting, sometimes all you get is a quick glimpse, while for others that capture our interest the viewer may sit and meditate over what they are looking at.  Much of what the guide provides is the story behind each painting, placing it in historical context, but also identifying thematic elements within the painting itself.  One of the more scintillating moments was a discussion with a group of legally blind people who were given elevated Braille materials that they could feel and touch to help them understand Camille Pisarro’s only nighttime painting The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897), see Original. 

The National Gallery is not among the largest museums, where Wiseman initially approached The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the charge to bring a camera into the museum was prohibitive, as Wiseman never pays any fee, so the smaller intimacy is what attracted the director.  While the film doesn’t have the curiosity factor of At Berkeley (2013), which literally takes the viewer inside the classrooms of one of the most prestigious public universities in the world, where students and professors alike are engaged in scintillating discussions, or the contemplative reach of Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2013) that takes us to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, seen through a developing friendship of a museum guard and a regular visitor, where the museum comes alive for Cohen’s distinctive focus, offering both a meditative glance at many of the paintings, but also a keen appreciation for people that spend time in museums, something altogether missing in Wiseman’s film.  Filmed in 2011-12 during major exhibitions for the 16th century Italian painters Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, and also 19th century British landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, with a major emphasis on the 17th century Dutch Masters Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, one memorable sequence involves the meticulous cleaning of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, see Original, where an X-ray taken of the painting reveals another painting hidden underneath.  Another involved a discussion of Turner's The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817, see Original, depicting the fall of Carthage, a particularly bloody affair in 146 B.C involving the Battle of Carthage where the Romans set the city ablaze while capturing 50,000 men sold into slavery, where Turner’s emphasis on a blood-red sun looks as if it was painted with dried blood.  A discussion of modern restoration techniques indicates the painstaking, time-consuming work involved to create a protective lacquer coating that is state-of-the-art reversible and future-proof, as it can be eliminated in fifteen minutes should a better system ever be devised.  Along with the paintings, down in a basement work area are craftsmen carving out luxuriously designed frames to be used, including one austere looking older woman whose sole job was to place a golden inlay around the wooden frame, chiseling it directly into the wood.  There is a Greenpeace protest against Shell Oil drilling in the arctic that draws a crowd outside the museum, as they raise a giant banner on the front of the museum structure itself, proclaiming “It’s No Oil Painting,” but mostly Wiseman’s focus is on the inside collection, where spectators are seen huddling around the paintings, squinting at the fine detail, while a few are sitting on the bench asleep, some couples are seen kissing, ending with a modern ballet by two members of The Royal Ballet of London, Leanne Benjamin and Ed Watson, dancing in front of two Titian paintings, Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon, mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translating the visual into yet another language, suggesting art is all about interpretation. 


There is a bit of controversy surrounding the film, which attributes Rubens as the painter of Samson and Delilah, 1610, where doubt was cast when the National Gallery purchased the painting at a 1980 Christie’s art auction for $5 million dollars, a record at the time.  According to independent artist and scholar Euphrosyne Doxiades, she believes it is a fake, that the composition does not match the original copies made during the artist’s lifetime, suggesting it is painted in a more heavy-handed style than the artist’s other work, and does not employ the layering technique of glazing common in oil painting at the time and mastered by Rubens.  She also finds it odd that one of Samson’s feet is not fully depicted within the canvas.  “Rubens is the painter’s painter par excellence; as a colorist and a draftsman, he is unique in the history of art.  When I first saw the National Gallery’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ in 1987, immediately I thought it could not have been painted by Rubens and I supposed that it was a copy — a 20th century copy.” For an institution like the National Gallery to present such a work as genuine, she says, is “offensive.”

She and her son launched a website, to coincide with the National Gallery’s major exhibition of Rubens’ work in 2005, Rubens: A Master in the Making, where more than 100 drawings and paintings were on display.  The case against Rubens can be found on the website here, The Strange Story of the Samson and Delilah: after Rubens, while in December 2005, Edward M. Gomez also summarizes the history of the case at Salon, Is “Samson and Delilah” a fake? -  According to a scientific analysis of the painting’s age, it does date back to the correct period, but it was earlier attributed to Dutch painter Gerard van Honthorst, a painter who, like Rubens, worked in Rome under the shadow of Caravaggio at the start of the 17th century.  Despite the claims, a majority of the art historical scholarly community has accepted Rubens as the painter.   

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