Frederick Wiseman’s absorbing new documentary about the National Gallery in London is an access-all-areas look at the gallery's inner workings. For several weeks in 2012, when Leonardo had people sleeping outside in Trafalgar Square to get a ticket to his blockbuster show, Wiseman—who has now made 40 documentaries about institutions—floated around the gallery observing and eavesdropping on restorers cleaning and retouching paintings, and curators discussing and hanging them; budgets being decided and marketing being reviewed; tours being guided and frames being carved. He also filmed quiet montages of masterpieces by Velázquez, Veronese, Rubens and van Eyck, and visitors wandering the rooms peering closely or looking bored, texting or canoodling. It’s a slow, meditative look at the bustle and chatter and craft that goes on around those quiet canvases. But its most interesting theme is the elusive lives of the paintings themselves.
Take Leonardo. The biggest attractions of the National Gallery’s exhibition were the two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks”, hung together in the same room for perhaps the first time ever. They are among the most analysed paintings in history. At one point a member of the gallery’s conservation team stands in front of one of them: “We know every detail of this picture,” he says. “We know how Leonardo prepared his panel, what kind of ground he used. We know that there were two phases of drawing on this picture. In fact it went through a radical transformation. We know a great deal about the materials, for example the pigments he used, the binding media he used, so we can provide a very complete description of how this work of art was created.” And yet, a few seconds later another curator stands in front of the other painting and says: “Art historians have thought about it for over a hundred years and have tried to work out the chronology and the relationship between these two paintings. We don't quite know why there are two pictures, who painted them, and when.” A third describes the process of looking at Leonardo as one of “endless revelation”, as though “onion layers are being peeled away and yet you never quite get to the core.”
Elsewhere, investigating one mystery reveals another. Larry Keith, the gallery’s head of restoration, had been cleaning an equestrian portrait painted by Rembrandt in 1663 to remove the old cracked varnishes that were obscuring some of its darker colours. He also had it X-rayed. With the giant, dark painting towering over him he holds up the X-ray which not only shows more detail in that picture, but also a second picture beneath it—possibly of the same man, but this time without his horse. For whatever reason, Rembrandt stopped painting that one, turned the canvas on its side and started another. Nobody knows why. Not that the earlier painting was completely wasted. Rembrandt reworked part of the first man’s ghostly tabard into the second man’s golden stirrup.
Over and over we see pictures drawing the experts in, but keeping them at arm’s length. This is summed up best by Betsy Wieseman, a curator of Dutch painting, as she stands beside Vermeer’s “A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal”, which shows the woman looking out at us, as though seen through an open doorway, with light streaming in from a window on the left and paintings on the wall behind her. “It’s a very ambiguous painting”, Wieseman says. “Because of the woman’s restraint, because of the absolute regularity and almost austerity of the composition, it’s hard to tell exactly what the painting is about, what might be going on in the painting.” Art historians, she goes on, can look at symbolism and structure as much as they like—“but how do we know that’s entirely what Vermeer had in mind? There’s always a question there that I firmly believe is absolutely intentional on the part of the best artists, because it's designed to keep you intrigued, to keep you coming back, to keep your attention on this painting.”
The film ends with a silent montage of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. They look quizzically at us; we look quizzically at them. They remind you that you can learn and clean and restore and discuss as much as you like, but in the end you just have to go on looking.
National Gallery opens in Britain on Jan 9th. Out now in America