Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery opens with a quiet montage of art works, beginning with Christian iconography, followed by historical personages, and then pictures that bend toward the impressionistic and sensually imaginative. From there, the camera peers at the shiny wooden floors of the London Gallery being polished to a sheen, the hypnotic jagged reflection of electric lights above making Wiseman’s composition its own kind of installment in this somber and silently spectacular prelude of perspective, a sequence extending from sacred ellipses to the inner workings of an individual’s private sphere. That floor is important; it’s a surface that reflects light that bounces back up and affects how we see. Over the next 170 minutes, National Gallery explores the workaday functions of an art gallery while simultaneously veering to the contexts of its many priceless masterpieces, with everything inside and out coming back to perspective. Even the blind, as observed during a gallery workshop, are seeing with their hands—and are probably more attentively attuned to the geometric shapes and rhythms within a picture. And then finally the subjects of the paintings themselves look as though they’re looking at us. Wiseman cuts indiscriminately between patrons and paintings and the binary of subject and object in the gallery dissolves; we too are on exhibition.
Wiseman, now 84 and still churning out incredible work (his last film was 2013’s hugely acclaimed At Berkeley), is famed for his immersive, seemingly objective (though so precisely molded) documentaries that explore various institutions: schools, hospitals, zoos, cities, government offices, stores, etc. He absorbs us into functional processes with his muted gaze. The reverence of looking could almost be said to achieve a crowning apex in National Gallery, where centuries-old art is bound with the movies. The first gallery guide we encounter describes a gigantic 14th century Christian painting and its original context, where surrounded by flickering candlelight, the painted figures appeared to be moving. She reminds us that the onlookers didn’t think the figures were literally moving, but in their mind, the sense of animation was spiritually enervating, stimulating imagination and making the painting more than a “thing”—it rather becomes “a sacramental channel from Earth to Heaven,” interceding in our prayers. Whether a moving picture or a static portrait, what’s in the frame goes beyond mere representation. It’s about the attachment the viewer has between that representation and the thing in itself, a private meditation within the gazing vector.