The explicit subject of Frederick Wiseman’s magnificent documentary“National Gallery” is the stately museum that rises at the northern end of Trafalgar Square in London. Like most of Mr. Wiseman’s work, the movie is at once specific and general, fascinating in its pinpoint detail and transporting in its cosmic reach. It’s about art and process, money and mystery, and all the many, many people gazing and gawping and, at times, lining up to see a blockbuster show. That “National Gallery” is also about movies is surely a given.
With cool intelligence and a steady camera, Mr. Wiseman guides you through the museum and past its masters, pausing to look but also to listen to what becomes a museumwide conversation on form, content and context. In one scene, a woman discusses the composition of a cityscape by Camille Pissarro in a room filled with visually impaired people, whose fingers glide over embossed reproductions of the painting. In another, a guide invokes the ephemeral while discussing a Dutch still life of a lobster that no longer exists and of a drinking horn that does. Elsewhere, a woman in a lecture hall passionately enjoins her audience to ask: What did the artist mean?
What does this artist mean? As is customary for a Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery” lacks voice-over, talking-head interviews or explanatory text, including identifiers. Mr. Wiseman tends to make you work more than documentarians who spell everything out, which is a problem only if you demand that images reveal themselves completely in the moment you first see them. Mr. Wiseman could have identified Nicholas Penny, the man with the silvery hair who seems to be running the joint, yet Mr. Penny’s body language, sighs and restrained impatience make it obvious that he is the boss. Not knowing didn’t impede my pleasure; it spurred my curiosity.
It’s possible to enjoy “National Gallery” just for its privileged three-hour virtual tour of the museum, including the behind-the-scenes sections. Some of the more engrossing involve various conservation efforts, including a talk in which a conservator, much like an art history Sherlock, speculates on a mysterious, ghostly image beneath the layers of dark paint on a Rembrandt portrait. As the conservator speaks, he metaphorically peels away strata of paint and varnish, an engagement with the portrait that reverses the work of the artist (and earlier restorers), humanizes Rembrandt and closes the distance between his time and ours. The painting has been taken off the wall and the artist plucked from mythologizing history to be briefly returned to his studio.
With its emphasis on process, this analysis of the painting echoes Mr. Wiseman’s own layering and how he builds meaning, scene by scene, creating complexity and building density associatively so that sound and image become motifs. One guide, for instance, goes into gruesome detail describing how the British painter George Stubbs, in order to understandhorse anatomy, used a pulley system to hang their skinned carcasses so that he could draw them. Sometime later, there’s a short, lovely sequence in which a man and a woman perform a pas de deux before some Titian paintings, a sequence that draws a line from Stubbs’s skinned horses to several life drawing classes in the documentary to the figures in the Titian canvases and, finally, to the straining muscles of the dancers.
At another point, Mr. Wiseman cuts to a nighttime scene of people suspended on ropes from the top of the museum as they unfurl a Greenpeace banner bearing the words “It’s no oil painting” across the building front. Some online sleuthing fills in the blanks. Seeking to draw attention to Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic, activists raised the banner the night of a company event at the museum in February 2012. (Shell is the sponsor for a current exhibition, “Rembrandt: The Late Works.”) Mr. Wiseman doesn’t include any of this, although his camera does linger on the banner, and you may notice that the “o” in “oil” looks like the yellow Shell logo. Even so, it’s not evident how the banner scene fits.
Yet it does — this is, after all, a Frederick Wiseman mosaic — because one of the most insistent refrains in “National Gallery” is the role of money in art, a subject that surfaces when the delightfully named Mr. Penny and a woman discuss whether the museum, as a public institution, needs to do more to make itself attractive to the actual public, and a separate, testier conversation about the institution’s budget. These dovetail with a scene in which a guide explains to some students that it’s crucial to remember that the museum’s origins can be traced to the slave trade: The foundation of the National Gallery’s collection originated with John Julius Angerstein, a celebrated art patron whose fortune was partly amassed through Grenada slave estates.
Mr. Wiseman wants us to remember that history, too, because, as he quietly argues, the story of all art is also the story of human endeavor and the complex weave of relationships, of labor, commerce, patronage and the sometimes gross exploitation of bodies (as with those slaves), most of which are not beautifully immortalized in museums.
That sounds heavier than I mean it to or than how the movie plays. Mr. Wiseman’s touch is deft but light here, and the experience of watching “National Gallery” is pleasurable and immersive because he’s a wonderful storyteller. It is also unexpectedly moving. Because his other great theme is how art speaks to us, one he brilliantly expresses in the relay of gazes that finds us looking at museumgoers looking at portraits that look right back — at artists, art lovers and moviegoers — even as Mr. Wiseman, that sly old master, looks at all of us in turn.