I was just in London this past October, and I relished the opportunity to visit The National Gallery twice during my sojourn there. It had been thirty years since my very first visit. I could not shake the experience of seeing Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Gray for the very first time, along with works by so many of the great masters in that so noble a setting. This time out, I joined a tour with an astute and politicized art historian who framed Delaroche’s painting in a fresh and fascinating light.
I am always enchanted by the professional docents at The National Gallery in London. They are such gifted storytellers, artists and art historians with such a multiplicity of perspectives. So when I returned home to learn that documentary film master Frederick Wiseman was releasing a new film about this great institution, I was delighted to be able to spend some more time in one of my favorite places on earth and intrigued to see what secrets his camera would unearth.
National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman explores the many functions of art: paintings as a sacramental channel between Heaven to Earth; paintings as photographic representations prior to the invention of photographic technology; paintings that recount stories much as do films today — biblical and secular, allegorical and poetic; paintings that preserve the ephemeral, if not forever, longer than the limited term of our lives in the present era. Wiseman leads you on a privileged tour of this world-class cultural institution. From figure drawing studios to the offices of museum director Nicholas Penny; from exhibition halls being lit and hung under the discriminating eyes of curators to the workshops of restorers and the handicraftsmen, the frame makers; from before its opening with maintenance persons polishing its floors at the crack of dawn, to long after its closing when political activists profane its façade with banners of protest close to the stroke midnight. Wiseman lets you get intimate to explore a beloved old flame or possibly a newfound love interest, as the case may be.
Wiseman repeats the motif of a sequence of portraits in quick succession to punctuate individual episodes in the film. He intercuts portrait paintings of individuals throughout history with video portraits of contemporary visitors to the gallery. One painting, in particular, is repeated a number of times. It is a self-portrait of Rembrandt as an older man, and it is the final image in the film. I was struck that the entire documentary might be read as a type of self-portrait by the filmmaker, Wiseman, reflecting upon the interrelationship of so many components that such creative endeavors entail.
Wiseman was featured recently on the cover of New York Times Magazine, the lead in a story on “Old Masters” with the byline “After 80, some people don’t retire. They reign.” National Gallery had its premier at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year. Wiseman has made 39 documentaries and 2 fiction films to date. “I want to film in the largest number of places possible to capture contemporary life, in the time that is given to me to work and live,” he states his intention; yet, he is reticent to suggest where he may lead us next.
Meanwhile, when I arrive to talk with him about National Gallery, I catch him busy at work collaborating on a new ballet.
I am reminded of the Hokusai quote that I saw at The Grand Palais:
From the time I was 6, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me,and around the age of 50, I began to work in earnest, producing numerous designs. It was not until after my 70th year, however, that I produced anything of significance. At the age of 73, I began to grasp the underlying structure of birds and animals, insects and fish, and the way trees and plants grow.
Thus [if I keep up my efforts], I will have even a better understanding when I was 80, and by 90 will have penetrated to the heart of things.
At 100, I may reach a level of divine understanding, and if I live decades beyond that, everything I paint – every dot and line – will be alive.
Sophia: Do you remember the first time that you ever visited The National Gallery?
Frederick: It was in 1956. I was in London a little after I got out of the army. I was with my wife and a friend who was studying art in London. He took us around and talked to us about the paintings. I remember some of the Cezanne portraits and my friend explaining some of the relationships between the portraits and the landscapes.
Sophia: In what ways did making the film, National Gallery, change your perspective of art?
Frederick: Being at The National Gallery every day pretty much for three months and having a chance to look at the paintings, to listen to these very experienced tour guides talk about them, and sitting in on some of the curatorial staff meetings, I’d like to think I learned something about how to read a painting. I am very interested in the issue of comparative forms. How do you tell a story, for example, in a painting? In a poem? A ballet?, etcetera … I like to think that I know how to read a novel or watch a play, but I didn’t have the same degree of knowledge about a painting. I think that my capacity to do that developed as a consequence of being there.
Sophia: What was your approach to photographing the paintings for the film?
Frederick: I decided right from the beginning that I wanted to shoot the paintings whenever possible inside the frame — so that you neither saw the frame of the painting, nor the wall, nor the plaque that identified the painting. I thought the painting became much more alive, much more vibrant when it filled the frame of the film. It wasn’t always possible, but it was possible for eighty to eighty five percent of the shots in the film.
Also, because I was making a film, I could shoot parts of the painting serially. Most of the paintings in The National Gallery tell a story. The collection goes just up to the end of the 19th Century; it’s really before modern art. Ordinarily, when you look at a painting, you look at the whole painting at once. But in film, you can concentrate. With the camera, you can do what the eye can only do only by getting close to the painting. You can tell the story of the painting in a series of as many shots as you want to use. One of the things that happens, some of the paintings are converted to film; you are looking at them as film.
Sophia: Did you select the works in advance that you wanted the docents to talk about?
Frederick: No, it was all chance.
Sophia: Cinema verité style, you documented what was transpiring with minimal interference?
Frederick: No interference at all. For instance, that very good docent who talks about the triptych towards the beginning of the film, then Rubens’ “Samson and Delilah,” and later Holbein — I ran into her one day in the lobby when she was collecting a group to take on a tour. I asked her, “Can I go along with you?” “Sure,” she said. That was a day that she talked about at least two of those three paintings.
Sophia: You take us to an art class in which the participants are touching an abstraction of Camille Pissarro’s “The Boulevard Montmartre at Night,” and it appears as if several of the participants in that class are blind?
Frederick: In that class all the students are all visually impaired — some are completely blind, but they all have some degree of visual impairment. We wanted to show that the gallery offered that kind of program. Also, in an abstract way, it raises the whole issue of looking at paintings and the role of sight in experiencing paintings.
Sophia: It is fascinating to consider that people who cannot see are able to partake in an art appreciation class. Also, you explore restoration in the film.
Frederick: I knew very little about restoration before I made the movie. Seeing the professionals at work, I realized the enormous skill that is involved in doing restoration. Technically, they have to be very good painters. At the same time, they have to understand the science. They have to understand the paint that was originally used. They have to have a complete comprehension of what the artist was trying to achieve. They have to be sure not to destroy the original. It’s an enormously complex job, involving technical work, detective skills, and a lot of thought.
Sophia: It was comforting to me when we learn that all the work that the restorers do is temporary, that it can be removed, that the integrity of even the damaged originals are preserved.
Frederick: Exactly, that was interesting. I didn’t know that before. I’d never had occasion to even think about that before.
Sophia: In the film, one of the curators observes that the paintings change over time and how you look at things changes over time. I was wondering if you had that experience while you were shooting the film?
Frederick: The artwork changes depending on the light conditions at different times of the day — whether it’s daylight or it’s dark. We didn’t light anything. The only thing in the movie that was lit was the ballet because the room with the Titians was pretty dark, and I knew that the rehearsal was going to happen.
Sophia: It was exquisite seeing that pas de deux performed in that room. Was there ever an audience that had an opportunity to see the ballet dancers perform live in The National Gallery or are the viewers of your film, the only such privileged audience?
Frederick: You are the only audience. I met Wayne McGregor when I did the Paris Opera Ballet movie (La Danse—Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, 1995). He was one of the choreographers there then. The first day I was at The National Gallery, one of the curators told me that Wayne had been commissioned by The Royal Ballet to do a ballet based on a Titian painting, and that he wanted to rehearse his dancers in front of the paintings. So I called him up and asked him whether we could shoot the rehearsal and he said, “Sure.” Then the dancers agreed. So it was really a lucky break — like so much else in this kind of filming.
Sophia: I read the story that you met somebody who worked for the museum while you were skiing in Switzerland?
Frederick: That’s absolutely true. That’s how I got permission. She was a friend of a friend of mine, and we were in this little village in the mountains having dinner, and she asked, “Have you ever thought of making a movie in a museum?” “Yes, I’ve thought about it,” I confided. “I tried The Met many years ago. They wanted to get paid, and I didn’t do that.” “Well, you know I work at The National Gallery, maybe they would be interested,” she offered. I said, “Great! I’ll start tomorrow if they are interested.” So my friend arranged for me to meet Nicholas Penny, the director, and some of the curators. I showed them some parts of some of my movies, and they approved. I was introduced in the right way, and as a result, it was quite easy to get permission.
Sophia: Was there anything that you had wanted to shoot that you were not able to get permission to shoot?
Frederick: The only thing I couldn’t shoot was when they were discussing personnel in the executive committee meeting. I didn’t want to do that because if they were discussing someone critically, it would not have been fair to the person to have their name or their character discussed in the film.
Sophia: We see the curators hanging an exhibition, and they talk about how when you hang works together the relationships between the works become more evident. Of course, that made me think about the process of editing in film. Did you show anyone at the gallery an edit of the film prior to locking picture?
Frederick: No. No. No. My agreement with the gallery as it has been in every place that I have made a movie is that I have complete editorial control of the movie. I never show the film to the place that is specific to the film until that it is absolutely, completely finished, mixed, color-corrected, done. I have a signed agreement to that effect, so that it’s not an issue about which there can be any debate. Otherwise, I risk working for a year or more and somebody says, “Well, I really don’t like that” or “we should take that out.” That’s simply not possible.
Sophia: Several times in your film, you return to this self-portrait by Rembrandt. It is the last painting that you show in National Gallery. Can you talk about that choice and the significance of that painting to you?
Frederick: The series of shots of the paintings by Rembrandt at the end of the film after the ballet sequence are portraits of people at different ages. The last one is of the older Rembrandt. So it’s sort of an “Ages of Man” ending. Like forty-five million other people, I think it’s a great painting.
Sophia: The Rembrandt exhibit was at The National Gallery when I visited recently, and it was extraordinary. I was struck by how Rembrandt captured people in such internal moments and with such compassion. What did you take away from that particular exhibit?
Frederick: He understood people, and he was able to present what he understood about them in the paintings — their anguish, their sadness, in some cases their joy, their complexity. I feel like I learn something about human experience whenever I look at the paintings of Rembrandt, either individually or together.
Sophia: What will you be shooting next?
Frederick: I’m trying to figure that out, but at the moment, I’m working with a choreographer on a ballet based on my first movie, Titicut Follies.
Sophia: Wow. That’s wild.
Frederick: It is wild. It is fun. I’ve made two ballet movies and one cabaret movie. I go to the ballet a lot. I’m strictly an amateur, but I have ideas, dramatic ideas for it. I’m working with a very good choreographer who has his own company. We are just in the early stages. It’s not going to be on until the fall of 2016, but so far we have booked two theatres for its debut, one in New York and the other in Minneapolis.
Top Image: From “National Gallery,” a Frederick Wiseman film. Photo provided courtesy of Zipporah Films.
For more information on Frederick Wiseman and his films: Zipporah Films