Frederick Wiseman

I have spent the last couple of days immersed in watching, and thinking about, Frederick Wiseman’s long film about the National Gallery for a brief (very brief) appearance on the Today programme.   His technique is rigorously anthropological :  he immerses himself in the life of an institution for three or four months, films everything as scrupulously as possible, and then sees what emerges through a long editorial process.   The result is an extraordinarily detailed set of observations as to how the National Gallery and its staff at all levels, and particularly its education department, explains and interprets the paintings in the collection to different audiences, from the blind to a single individual donor.   I think the lesson of the film, if there is a lesson, is that the nature of individual experience of paintings is ultimately unknowable.   The film opens with a long slow sequence of paintings viewed silently without interpretation;  and it ends with another long slow sequence set to ballet.   These silent sequences come across as a more profound experience than any amount of historical, cultural or contextual explanation.


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