so many paintings, so little time

National Gallery (UK) Visit, in Paris

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Recently saw Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary film, National Gallery, at Cine104 around the corner from my studio in Paris. The Repainter watched with particular interest. Here’s a work of art also made from old paintings, awfully good ones, as befits a collection representing the British Empire.

Leonardo da Vinci's Belle Ferronierre at the National Gallery

Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière at the National Gallery, UK, seen in Wiseman’s documentary film.

As I watched I wondered when I would hear what museum-goers thought as they encountered works on the brocaded walls. How they understood what they were looking at. I wanted to walk into the screen and tap the shoulders of some of the many visitors shown during the three hours of Wiseman’s film. What are you thinking as you stare so intently? You can tell me, I need to know that you really care about this scrap of canvas with some smears on it, from a few hundred years ago, about a world that no longer exists, of people long dead, wearing clothes you couldn’t buy if you wanted, picturing places barely recognizable today, and—in a typically enlightening passage in the film—showing a screaming red lobster that, after being painted, vanished forever. Except for its vivid presence in that Dutch still life now hanging in the National Gallery.

Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the St Sebastian Archers' Guild, Lobster and Glasses by Willem Kalf (c. 1653), Collection National Gallery, London

Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the St Sebastian Archers’ Guild, Lobster and Glasses by Willem Kalf (c. 1653), Collection National Gallery, London

The film is mum. The only talking heads are experts: art historians, docents, restorers, museum administrators. Make no mistake, they’re all illuminating, thrilling at times, as they talk out of their particular expertise. The high level of theoretical sophistication and historical erudition is eye-opening, and immensely stimulating. Does it also leave the paintings, the museum, on a very high pedestal?
That was my question as I left the film. Despite the fact that National Gallery wears its considerable heart for painting and the museum dedicated to preserving so many great examples on its sleeve, I wondered if Wiseman inadvertently reaffirmed painting as beyond the reach of mere mortals as we. So you need a PhD to really get it…?

Interview being filmed in National Gallery, seen in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary

 Wiseman’s modus operandi is to observe institutions, fly on the wall style. He is invisible, a wizard behind the curtain, carefully selecting what to present of the rarified life unfolding in and around the museum, and how to present it. Nobody talks to the camera. Or to him. He even grabs moments of other film-makers filming experts—never just random museum-goers— talking to THEIR cameras, but not his. Perhaps the only way he could have given us the verbal responses of museum-goers would have been to document conversations between them as they looked at paintings.
 But what makes National Gallery extraordinary is the silent visual bond between solitary viewers and works of art. We are left to imagine the thoughts and emotions produced by that alchemy.
There is poetry in what transpires. Art begets art. Wiseman concretizes this notion by including a poet reading her painting-inspired poem (for another camera), a pianist performing a concert in the gallery, a magical pas de deux danced between two giant canvases.
  1. The little people’s comments, thoughts count as much as the big folks. Maybe more. I don’t necessarily want to hear some erudite pontificator expounding on his or her notions of meaning in a particular work of art.

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