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Film Tue Nov 18 2014

Faces Looking at Faces in National Gallery

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National Gallery photograph by Robert MacPherson from top of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

How do we look when we're looking at art? That's one of the intriguing facets of this gorgeous art tour of London's National Gallery. Frederick Wiseman's three-hour documentary, National Gallery, which opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, shows us many scenes of faces looking at faces. Human faces peering, pondering, smiling, puzzling at portraits painted by the masters of Medieval, Renaissance and Romantic art.

During the mesmerizing three hours we spend at the gallery, we see preparations for and openings of major exhibits of the work of Titian, Turner and Leonardo. The 2011 Leonardo exhibit (titled Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan) was a blockbuster; $25 tickets were being scalped for $400. Wiseman shows scenes of museum visitors lined up in hopes of obtaining tickets.

The gallery's collections constitute Western European art of the 13th to the 19th centuries, so you'll not see any Lichtensteins, Pollocks or Stellas here. But you will see works by Degas, C├ęzanne, Monet and Van Gogh from the later era, as well as Rubenses, Rembrandts, Michelangelos, Holbeins, Botticellis, Durers and Caravaggios.

Wiseman's treatment lets us view the museum and its art in its glory with no voiceover and no background music. Occasionally we join a group listening to a docent describe a painter's style or speculate on the story behind a painting. We sit in on board meetings where budgets are refined or publicity opportunities are debated. We watch restorers at work and hear them talk about paint surfaces and frames. We see workers preparing a gallery for a new exhibit and hear the sound of their hammering and taping.

The museum's educational mission is shown in drawing classes. We observe the students drawing and hear the instructor point out how to capture the shading of a male or female nude. In another very moving scene, blind visitors learn about a painting by Pissarro by touching reproductions printed in relief.

Wiseman also treats us to other art events at the gallery, such as a piano recital, a poetry reading--and two ballet dancers performing in a gallery.

In addition to the many scenes of human faces absorbing painted ones, the film shows long reverent shots down narrow galleries of art culminating in a masterpiece at the end.

This art documentary is a portrait of a magnificent arts institution. Wiseman shows the size and grandeur of the gallery's collections and its role in the exuberant London artistic community.

National Gallery opens Friday, Nov. 21 and runs through Dec. 4 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Tickets are $6 for members and $11 for nonmembers. For more information, call 312-846-2800. And if you have a chance to visit the National Gallery in London in person, you should know it's open 361 days a year and admission is free.

Steve Prokopy will review National Gallery in his film review column on this page Friday. Don't miss his take on the same film.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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