He guides us to see art as an interaction between the past and the present, between the art piece and the observer. We see cuts between faces on paintings and the visitors’ faces – which is a very visible parallel between the past and the present.
FILM SEMINAR: MAD ABOUT DOCUMENTARY FILM
An Exhibition of Interpretation in National Gallery
By Ivana Balážová
Ivana Balážová is a student from Slovakia. She studies documentary film directing at VŠMU Bratislava and is currently on exchange at AGRFT.
Let’s ask ourselves a question. What is a gallery? In general it’s a place where we can see great art and sometimes also buy some artefacts like paintings, graphics, or sculptures. That is not an official definition. It is just my view, a view from a person who goes to the gallery maybe two or three times a year. After watching National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014) that definition of a gallery changed for me. Galleries always seemed like some ordinary institutions, where there is nothing to see under the surface, but Wiseman showed me that there is so much more going on behind that picture.
Even though I am a student and a beginner in the art of documentary filmmaking, I am not afraid to confess that I didn’t know Frederick Wiseman’s work before. Yes, I have already heard about the documentary legend, but National Gallery was where our first official “date” happened. And when I walked home after the screening, I was madly in love. I would also like to add that I don’t like to write (or speak) about any film only in superlatives. But in this writing, you will not find a lot of negative things. Wiseman just didn’t give me any other choice.
“Close your eyes and try to move to the tiny dark church in 6th century”, the guide encourages visitors of the gallery at the beginning of the movie. For a second maybe, they feel uncomfortable. But then they realize that this is what we can do through art. We can move away from our current reality with the aim of trying to understand it in a new way. After this beginning about interpretation, we then find ourselves in a smaller room. People are sitting around tables. A woman is speaking about art and puts some sketches in front of them. They start to touch these sketches and literary feel the art, and we see that they are blind. This was a moment when I could say “Oh, that is strong!” because it is, but: “What more can Wiseman offer me in next 3 hours?”
Don’t worry, I am not going to analyze the film scene by scene. I would just like to point out the dramaturgy of the film in which Wiseman achieves to get a lot of these surprisingly strong moments that don’t make the viewers feel as if they are on a minefield of pathetic sentimentalism. Wiseman serves us a big tangle of topics, emotions, information and impressions. He is playful in his observation and these visual games are balanced with interesting information. In the film we become witnesses to an artistic analysis of social behavior from the beginning of mankind until today. And he looks deeply under the surface.
In the film Wiseman also guides us through the management problems that the director and employees of the gallery are facing. At this point we also get to see a lot of the professions of people working in the gallery, and for most of them we have never heard before. We see a restorer, who takes care of the paintings with specific perfection, very professionally, but also very delicately and softly. You can see how the love for art looks in practice. The pile of information we get is not heavy and it does not make a mess in our head. With slow cuts and long shots Wiseman gives us time and space to think about them and absorb them.
At the end, I would like to stop for a moment by the statement that the interpretation of art is unbound. This sounds like an old phrase, but is nonetheless true. The film is interlaced with several different interpretations of selected paintings. Gallery curators are trying to explain art to different groups of visitors. In some situations those explanations seem a bit exaggerated constructs of art historians. However, Wiseman, with his playful visual observations, doesn’t allow us to think about it that way. He guides us to see art as an interaction between the past and the present, between the art piece and the observer. We see cuts between faces on paintings and the visitors’ faces – which is a very visible parallel between the past and the present. But these are not just plain similarities, what he shows us are deeply rooted connections between people in the past and the present-day and the power of interpretation of this relation through art. It is his art. And this is his way of talking to us.