National Gallery is another documentary directed by Frederick Weiseman, very similar to the format of his later Ex Libris. He and his cameras are flies on the wall during the normal activities that occur in the National Gallery in London. Through his camera, we the audience are present for lectures about paintings, sketching workshops, painting restorations, board meetings, and artistic performances. There is no single narrative. We are left to take from the documentary what we will—sort of, I would argue, as one does by viewing a painting in an art museum.
I enjoyed listening to the mini-lectures that docents gave to groups at the National Gallery about a particular painting or artist. The docents describe context around the painting in order to help us view the painting in a different way. In one case, in a small gathering, a museum employee explains how and where the painting was made—in situ over a large, high fireplace to the right of a window that let in light. That he knew from knowledge of the painting’s providence, how light was used for painting before the advent of electricity, etc.
In another lecture, a museum employee walks a group through restoration of a huge image of a nobleman astride a horse. Before restoration, X-rays are taken. In this case, it showed another full figure painted underneath. The artist painted over it and rotated the canvas before painting what became his final piece. Over time paintings underneath bleed through. In this case, some of that bleeding through probably confused previous restorers of the painting about what to restore or what not to restore.
And I learned more about the restoration process. I always thought it odd that museums would touch up paintings. Doesn’t that risk damaging them? How is the modern-day museum employee able to touch up a painting that doesn’t do a disservice to the skill and technique used by the original artist? I learned that at least in modern day restoration, they clean the painting, re-varnish the painting, and then do the touch-ups on top of the varnish. By doing so, future restorations can easily remove the touch-ups and varnish when they clean the painting. So in essence, the painting isn’t damaged or permanently altered by touch-ups. Well, that’s not entirely true.
In another talk, an employee discusses how sometimes the original artist used a particular varnish on the painting to get a certain effect with the color. With restoration, when cleaning is done, the varnish is stripped off. So the original intent of the colors may be permanently altered. The restorer is in effect altering the painting. My original fear was well founded.
Like libraries in Ex Libris, art museums are moving beyond their traditional mission. In addition to being places to enjoy art, art museums like the National Gallery are becoming much more. The documentary shows the plethora of lectures to different audiences—in the gallery and back in the areas where restoration is done (normally not accessible to the public). Workshops employ different techniques, creating more 3D type images of paintings that blind audience members can feel as the speaker discusses the painting. Other workshops are hands-on creative enterprises—participants sketch human nudes.
A recent trend with art museums is to become more than places that house works of art. In the case of the National Gallery, it is working to become a place of doing art and enjoying performances. The National Gallery hosts musical and dance performances. Audience members enjoy the performance surrounded by beautiful works of art. The ambiance is as important as the performance itself.
In meetings that the documentary shows, the board is not ready to popularize the venue simply to bring in revenue. Other art museums have chosen the path of popularizing their venues. The modern goal of art museums seems to be to bring people (and revenue) into their spaces, not necessarily to enjoy the works of art, but to enjoy more popular activities and spaces—all in the name of popularizing their space (aka bringing in revenue). At what point does it go too far? The National Gallery seem to have a clear demarcation. Other museums, like the Indianapolis Museum of Art, are becoming more popular community spaces.
The IMA for several years has embraced the popularization movement. Some of their new activities try to meld art with popular appeal. Others not so much. For two years the museum hosted a mini-golf course, with each hole a work of art designed around a theme. The museum also opened a beer garden with at least one beer locally crafted specifically for the museum. Recently the museum completed an indoor/outdoor exhibit of cracking art—brightly colored plastic animal sculptures that spoke to environmental themes. For the second year, the museum is hosting an outdoor winter lights display—a grandiose affair in terms of time, effort, and money. For years, the museum has hosted film festivals and musical/ballet performances. The common theme seems to be to reach out to the non-art museum goer and get them into the museum or at least on the museum grounds.
The National Gallery, at least at the time of this documentary, decided against such a popularization. They discuss a marketing approach to museum, but seem to want to maintain the museum as an art venue meant for lovers of art, artistic performances, and artistic endeavors.
With the numerous mini-lectures that National Gallery shows, I felt that the three hours was an easier watch than Ex Libris. But I am a lover of traditional art museums and eagerly attend lectures on the works in their galleries. With the documentary, I was able to attend a number of mini lectures and learn interesting tidbits about how paintings are restored and how to look at paintings as stories and examine the context in which paintings were created. But I am an old-school art museum attendee. I ride the popularization wave albeit somewhat reluctantly.