One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery (2014) is showing May 13 - June 12, 2020 in the United Kingdom.
“That shot appears in all my films. It’s a private joke about class and who does certain kinds of work.” So said Frederick Wiseman of this establishing image: an employee in loose-fitting polo shirt, cable slung over his shoulder, operating a floor polisher in Room 19 of London’s National Gallery. It’s preceded by a montage of exalted artworks, accompanied by the hum of a yet-seen appliance. Already alert to deceptive interactions of sound and color, we now observe this figure with his gyrating machine. He splits the composition, horizontally, into two broad palettes. His grey top merges with the washed-out blue walls; his bottle of red liquid seeps into the dark oak-paneled floor. Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf peers, mockingly, towards the foreground. We watch the floor being polished, so lustrous that we notice the silhouettes of paintings. Wiseman isn’t too high-minded about this act of toil. Just as the artist John Heartfield produced ironic collages of revered portraits to satirize cultural gatekeepers, Wiseman uses montage to anticipate the unassuming, albeit comic, role of the unsung worker. The politics of this public institution exist in a subterranean passage: between its low-paid maintenance jobs and its disreputable oil sponsorships. Wiseman doesn’t overstate things. Later, a long discussion on ambiguity in Vermeer hints the slyest of self-commentaries for the least reflexive of filmmakers. Gallerists, restorers, directors, guests, and visitors constitute the usual multiple perspectives. Yet, the floor polisher haunts the screen. While the museum functions as a place of conservation, this initial shot captures, in hindsight, the whims of curation. Today, Poussin’s Calf hangs in Room 29, surrounded by patterns of pale green damask, away from the vertiginous abyss of Wiseman’s composition. His signature motif transforms the polished floor, restored through labor, into an infinite source of looking, seeing and reflection.