Interview with National Gallery director (and master documentarian) Frederick Wiseman

A view of National Gallery
  • A view of National Gallery

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries have titles such as High School, Hospital, Juvenile Court, Meat, Model, Racetrack, Deaf, Missile, Zoo, Domestic Violence, and Boxing Gym. That last, from 2010, was my first exposure, and I was immediately captivated by its blunt immediacy. Wiseman knows better than most anyone I’ve seen how to get in there and get out of the way. Now he’s done just that with National Gallery, a portrait of the famed art museum on Trafalgar Square in London. It’s 180 minutes, but it goes by much faster than any three-hour visit to the actual National Gallery would, because it’s hugely engaging. By the time we arrived at footage of a frame-maker patiently chiseling his patterns, I was so hooked I was sorry to move on.

National Gallery trailer

Matthew Lickona: Early on, you show us a debate among the folks who run the Gallery about whether to allow advertising images to be projected onto the face of the National Gallery during the finish of a televised marathon. The publicity people are pointing to the benefit of exposure to an enormous audience. But the Gallery’s Director, Nicholas Penny, is expressing all sorts of concerns, some of them having to do with the Gallery’s public image. Watching it, I kept thinking, What sort of debate must they have had about allowing Frederick Wiseman to come in and film stuff like this?

Frederick Wiseman: Well, as far as I know, they didn’t have much of any. They agreed right away. I was at a ski resort, and I met someone who worked at the National Gallery. She asked me if I was interested in making a movie about an art museum, and I said, “Sure.” I’ve been doing a series on institutions, and a museum fit into that, and I’ve wanted do to a museum for a long time. She arranged for me to meet the director, and he said okay after he checked with his curators. It was just chance. Maybe they had a debate, but the issue wasn’t quite the same, because there weren’t the same sort of commercial purposes. My film, I hope, is directly related to the day-to-day work at the gallery, and selling sneakers is not.

ML: Fair enough. But they’re clearly so concerned with managing the face that the Gallery presents to the world, and here you show them debating about budgets and staff cuts and how they’re going to sell themselves to the public.

FW: But that’s realistic. I think anybody who has thought about these large institutions knows that they’re not totally dependent on Santa Claus.

ML: Why do you eschew external narration in your work?

FW: Well, I don’t like it. For me, I mean. It works perfectly well for someone else to have an interviewer or narration. But I like the idea of trying to represent what is actually going on. Of course, it’s not exactly that, because it’s edited and shot with different kinds of lenses. But when a film of mine works, it works because the viewer feels like they’re present. It’s my job to give them enough information so they can understand what’s going on.

ML: I particularly noticed it here because you don’t let us hear the recorded narration that Gallery visitors are listening to on their headphones. We see the viewers as they look at the paintings and listen to the narration, but we don’t hear what they’re hearing.

FW: That was a choice I made. I could have done that; it would have been perfectly legitimate. I just didn’t. I thought it was more interesting to hear the docents talk — and to see them talk — than to just have it come out of the earphones.

ML: Some of those docents talked mostly about what was depicted in the image, and I found I was a sucker for the notion of painting as narrative tool. Others were much more about the technique involved in the images creation, or the artist’s intention, or the historical context. If one of them were discussing your film, how would you want the docent to approach it first?

FW: I guess I would like them to approach it in a variety of ways, by thinking about what I was trying to do, and making some judgment as to whether I succeeded. And the various techniques we used to try and accomplish that goal.

ML: What was the goal?

FW: My goal was to make as good a film as I could with the material that I had.

ML: Does the film make a case for the significance of the National Gallery?

FW: The point of the film is not to make a case about anything. But I would hope that someone watching the film would come away with the idea that the National Gallery is an important institution, and the critical importance to society of maintaining the heritage of the paintings. Some of the greatest painters in the world are represented there.

ML: Speaking of techniques, how do you manage to get so much footage of the public in which they seem unaware of you and your camera?

FW: By trying not to draw attention, and also, by doing what I can to demystify the process. I let people know in advance that a movie is being made. I don’t know the real explanation — I suppose it has something to do with vanity or narcissism or indifference, together with the way I present myself. But my experience is that people don’t mind being photographed, they rarely look at the camera, and they rarely change their behavior just because they’re being filmed.


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ML: A couple of the docents spent considerable time considering the artist’s awareness of his audience. Do you ever think about your audience?

FW: No. I don’t know how to think about an audience. For example, how could I anticipate that almost a year after I finished the movie, you were going to be seeing it in San Diego? I don’t know anything about you: your experience, your education, your values, your interests, etc. As far as I’m concerned, when one starts thinking about an audience, one instantly gets involved in the usual Hollywood trap of diluting the material to reach the lowest common denominator. At the risk of sounding pretentious or presumptuous, the only audience I think about when I’m editing a movie is myself, and the only assumption I make about the audience is that they’re as smart or as dumb as I am. Anything else is sheer fantasy speculation.

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