Puddles left over from the nor'easter were forming a few crystals by the time we got home around midnight from the Film Forum where we and a couple of friends watched The National Gallery. But our bulging bags of leftovers sent home with us did not freeze, though they were cold.
The National Gallery was interesting enough that el V neither left nor complained, which never, or hardly, ever happens with him and movies. (We also found parts of it funny enough to laugh out loud, to the great bewilderment of the rest of the audience. But then, we laughed all the way through Henry Adams's histories of the Jefferson and Madison administrations too.) That he el V was able to sit through so is because it's a documentary about the operation of the National Gallery of Art (London), not a dramatic, narrative fiction film.
Clearly, however, the word had come down from somewhere or other, as could be deciphered via the business meetings the camera attends, that the mission operative words for the NG that year 2011 -2012 (the year of their blockbuster Leonard da Vinci show) was "narrative" and "storytelling." So the staff, tour guides and art historian lecturers constantly emphasized to the attendees, art students, tourists, school children etc., that art tells stories. Alas, the stories the staff told them the art told were awful! -- and sometimes just stupid.
There's a Velázquez ("Jesus With Mary and Martha") about which the lecturer complacently intones the forefront women are to be 'read' as Mary and Martha -- when it's clear that Mary is with Jesus in another room.
What likely is actually going on in the foreground, as one will know who was brought up female, which the lecturer certainly was not, to housekeeping, is the older woman chiding the younger kitchen maid that if she doesn't take care of the fish right now instead of pounding the garlic the fish are going to go bad. One can read this too, as the kitchen maid is also trying to listen to Jesus, but unlike Mary, the maid of a lower class, a worker in the household, is not allowed to listen. The lecturer ignored entirely that Velázquez tipica of the forefront scene opening via a mirror, a window, another painting, to an entirely other scene in the background with the other action with Mary listening to Jesus speak on the spiritual matters that he later tells Martha are "the best part" of leading one's life, rather than bustling about making dinner. (I've come to have sympathy for Martha over the years that I didn't have back when I was a young girl and obviously took Mary's part, because that's what I would have done ....) Gads, I love Velázquez's work!
One wonders ... how a few of the staff, particularly the woman who was their publicity and marketing person, felt when they saw themselves after the film was finished. That woman -- if there was a villain in The National Gallery, it was her -- she really thought it would be great for them to be an endorsing sponsor of some huge sports event, though she couldn't ever articulate in what way being part of the world that is all about sneakers commercials would help bring positive awareness to the Gallery. Nor did she ever shut up, or listen -- and repeated herself endlessly. Anything she said, she said nineteen times at least without taking breath.
One also got the impression that everyone who is a Gallery expert art historian staff member, who is British, had the same training somewhere, because they all used their arms and hands in their presentations as if they were attempting to fly, constantly touched themselves everywhere. It was a relief to hear a voice that was American or German -- or even, I think, Geordie, as they didn't have these distracting and irritating mannerisms that ended up dominating their presentations rather than the information ,or the painting they were talking about, dominating. In contrast, the experts such as the restorers and so on, when they spoke, and they were as articulate as the art historians, when they used their hands, they were doing something real, with tools.
It was fun for me, because I'd been reading all about Poussin in Anthony Blunt: his lives (2001), that Poussin, and particularly his "The Triumph of Pan"
were among the arts works looked at. I loved understanding the snark the lecturer was making about Blunt -- if you knew that background, that Blunt, a commie spy exposed in 1979 by Thatcher, had made his art history career via Poussin, who was very poorly regarded until Blunt, with the help of better, German, experts, bootstrapped himself to social and professional success with his championship of Poussin. In fact, it was because Blunt was one of the Brits who managed to create the whole discipline of art history in England that I've been reading the book.
It was the varieties of intense knowledge and information that we hear described and witness going into restoration, cleaning, and so on, even putting up an exhibit, that were most fascinating. We also appreciated that the expert talking heads, particularly when they are witnessed talking with other experts from other subjects, such as musicology, for instance, how many ways art matters beyond "ART," to other creative and scholarly disciplines, such as history, archeology, fashion, religion, politics and even economics.
At one point, a lecturer to a school group of early teen kids, made a point of saying all this -- the National Gallery itself and the contents of its collections -- had been made possible by the founders' money made from the slave trade. It was a short, quick disquisition, that made the important checks that making money from the slave trade didn't mean only by going to Africa, taking captives, and selling them in the New World: it was insurance, shipbuilding, supplying, money invested from plantations in the New World in English manufacturies and so on. (Nobody did use the term capitalism though.)
The documentary also spends some time with all the many other activities that an art museum sponsors and nurtures. There are art classes taught in touch and spoken word for those with vision impairments. Art classes in drawing. Poets, speaking their work. Musicians playing among art works. Dancers, dancing in front of Titians, which were part of a series that supposedly are Titian's response to Ovid's Metamorphoses (which, like so many of that sort of performance left me scratching my head, wondering why that with that? what did it matter?) Yet, an art museum shouldn't be confined to what is hanging static in space, should it? So, why not?
The art with which we spend most of the film's running time is from the 16th and 17th centuries. So much so do we live in that, for us, now, timeless past of masterpieces, that, when close to the end, we see a small burst of late 19th century painting, they strike you with their full shock of the new and the modern. We've suddenly reentered our own world of the 21st century, which, far from being timeless, is imbued with the sense of time running out.
This is a video documentary: HBO is among the funders, as well as is participation of a large number of English and French television networks, and from the U.S., PBS and Sundance.
Video is the perfect means for working in an art museum, as the objects are already optimally lit for showing, so little or no lighting is needed for video shooting. Film, however, would demand lighting, and the lighting would burn out the objects. Art is concerned with light and angle and dimension and color as fundamental creative principles. Thus, The National Gallery is a gorgeous viewing experience, which is as it should be.
Tonight: George Clinton and P-Funk at B.B. King's.