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When ‘National Gallery’ is in front of the camera

In Frederick Wiseman’s “National Gallery,” a behind-the-scenes look at Britain’s most famous art museum.
In Frederick Wiseman’s “National Gallery,” a behind-the-scenes look at Britain’s most famous art museum.Zipporah Films

Frederick Wiseman's 42d documentary begins with the sound of bells and ends with the sight of Rembrandt's face from a late self-portrait. During the nearly three hours that come between, Wiseman does his Fred Wiseman thing. He brings to bear scrutiny of the quiet sort — unhurried, comprehensive, uninflected — on one of the world's great museums, London's National Gallery.

The result has more and sexier stars than the biggest Hollywood blockbuster. They're the paintings. Wiseman's close-ups of the many Titians and Leonardos and Rubenses and Velázquezes and, well, you get the idea, are joyous and transporting. But it's more than what's on the walls, glorious as the art is, that interests Wiseman. It's the gallery as a living, breathing, multidimensional enterprise.


We encounter museumgoers, docents, curators, conservators, people waiting in line, laborers, copyists, waitstaff at an opening-night reception, even television presenters and political protesters. (Calling attention to climate change, the latter illegally hang a banner on the museum's exterior overlooking Trafalgar Square.) Wiseman can make the rehanging of a painting just so take on the grace (and frustration) of capturing butterflies, and his camera can invest the actions of an electric screwdriver with eloquence. Though in the matter of tools, nothing rivals the array of implements in the museum's framing studio or the exactitude with which gold leaf is applied to the border of an intricately carved frame.

Wiseman has no illusions about the museum's existence. It's an iceberg, with exaltation soaring about the waterline — and all this other stuff we don't see supporting the beauty. We observe floors being waxed, pictures being dusted, budget meetings being held. The various pained expressions on the face of the museum director, Nicholas Penny, as he listens to a PR person "thinking a bit from the audience perspective," as she nervously puts it, are worthy of Titian's "Flaying of Marsyas" (a painting not in the gallery's collection). Later on, Penny looks much, much happier lecturing on Poussin's "The Triumph of Pan." He's enjoying a brief respite atop the iceberg.


In a sense, there can be nothing ordinary about such an extraordinary place. Furthermore, Wiseman's special gift as a filmmaker has been to show how searching attention reveals that there really is no such thing as ordinariness. Yet, even bearing in mind those strictures, Wiseman captures some remarkable, wholly unexpected moments. With only an X-ray and the painting itself for illustration, Larry Keith, the director of conservation, talks extemporaneously about a Rembrandt equestrian portrait so excitingly we feel as though we're the ones on the horse. An art appreciation class seems of a piece with two drawing classes in the documentary — until one realizes that this class is for seeing-impaired people "looking" at a Pissarro painting.

Although Wiseman generally keeps things simple, he does offer the occasional flourish. Having some fun, he cuts back and forth between Leonardo drawings of heads and the people gazing at them. To give a sense of artistic interaction, he shows the poet Jo Shapcott being filmed (by the museum) reading some verse she wrote inspired by a Titian painting. This is followed by a dance performance, also inspired by Titian, in a gallery of the artist's paintings. It's a bit much, frankly. The same cannot be said of a piano recital in another gallery, the performance harking back to Dame Myra Hess's playing lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery during the Blitz. The paintings had been removed for safekeeping, but thanks to the music art remained in the gallery.


The quality of looking is never strained in "National Gallery." "It's this wonderful mixture of observation and imagination," a lecturer says of Leonardo's "Madonna of the Rocks," one of the museum's prize possessions. Something similar can be said of Wiseman and his film.

Frederick Wiseman is scheduled to appear at the MFA for a post-screening discussion on Nov. 16.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.