Portrait of a Gallery review: a brilliant piece of art criticism

In this documentary, the National Gallery gets a depiction worthy of its renovation

Late in this excellent documentary, one of the curators at the National Gallery of Ireland describes his process in simple terms. “By putting pictures next to each other, they form a narrative. You see things you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

That is as fluent and incisive a précis of Portrait of a Gallery (RTE One, Tuesday, 9.35pm) as as you are likely to find. A study in contrasts and juxtapositions, light and shade, it knows the value of an image, the sly interplay of aligning scenes, how to draw the eye to things you would not see otherwise.

It is, ostensibly, a fly-on-the wall documentary about the six-year refurbishment of a national institution, whose building had long been considered inadequate to protect Ireland's largest collection of Irish and European art. But in the programme's breadth of access (it was filmed over three years) and the egalitarianism of its input (we are as likely to hear from director Sean Rainbird as from visitors, from curators as well as cleaners) it is so determined to root the exalted in the quotidian that it might count as a spirited and enlivening piece of arts criticism itself.

One typically wry sequence, for instance, moves sharply from the champagne corks and gossamer encomiums of an upstairs book launch to a windowless room where the exasperated site manager, John Francis, explains one crisis as bluntly as he can: "Our aim is to build a f**king basement, fellas."


This, near enough, is actually the biggest undertaking behind the refurbishment of the Dargan and Milltown wings of the gallery, under which will be built an engine room to supply the ducts and services necessary to preserve the artworks. This requires “underpinning” the building, which, as project architect Kasia Turza-Rachwal acknowledges, is “an unusual and stressful process”. So it proves to be.

Against the complications, delays and frustrations shared equally by the gallery, the architects and the builders, director and producer Adrian McCarthy is allowed to explore the myriad energies underpinning the gallery. For striking images, the project supplies him with an embarrassment of riches. “They’re taking William Dargan off his plinth today,” we hear before the statue of its first benefactor is gently hoisted away. When the wings have been stripped bare, McCarthy tends to film the space in eerie symmetries, where refurbishment is respectful, gently lowering century-old door frames, or as violent as the first pickaxe jab into the parquet floor.

This is all towards conservation of the building and the artworks, and we also see the painstaking restorative efforts behind a crowd-favourite, Daniel Maclise's The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, and, more harrowingly, repairs to the vandalised Claude Monet painting, Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sail Boat. "You cannot be irresponsible. You have to be patient and wait," say the builders, contending with threatening weather, but it is equally true of the staff as the public.

McCarthy is attentive to juxtapositions: at the reopened Merrion Square entrance they roll out fresh sods of grass, while inside they roll out the restored canvases with similar care. That seems in keeping with the spirit of the gallery, a public good it is imperative to protect. The achievement of this documentary is to provide a composition worthy of it.