Saturday, December 11th, 2010

Leonardo on Park Avenue, Courtesy of Peter Greenaway

Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway at the Park Avenue Armory

December 3, 2010 – January 6, 2011
643 Park Avenue at 66th Street
New York City, (212) 616-3930

installation shot of Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway at the Park Avenue Armory
installation shot of Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway at the Park Avenue Armory

If ever the art-going public needed a reminder of the wisdom of the dictum “show, don’t tell,” it needs look no further than Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway, on view now at the Park Avenue Armory.

Greenaway, a filmmaker long fascinated with the visual arts, is well known for films (The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982; Nightwatching, 2007) in which artists and their creations are central figures. With his series “Nine Classical Paintings Revisited,” begun in 2006, Greenaway has gone directly to the source, selecting acknowledged masterpieces from the canon as the objects of a digital-age reappraisal. Greenaway’s vision is presented to us in three acts played out in two adjoining spaces that are set off by giant digital screens massive enough not to be dwarfed by the Amory’s cavernous unlit drill hall.

The first act sets the scene of Renaissance Italy through Greenaway’s awesome command of the technological landscape, like the opening orientation at the IMAX Theatre where all the audio/visual bells and whistles are explained so that one doesn’t faint midway through the show. Tremendously vivid digital and animated images are presented in 360-degrees on four massive screens surrounding the audience and a fifth screen on the floor (it can be walked on), all backed by a powerful, violin-fueled audio track. Act two includes a full-scale replica of the original chapel for which The Last Supper was commissioned in Milan. Here Greenaway presents his interpretation of Leonardo’s masterpiece, before returning to the first room for Act Three, an exploration of the Paolo Veronese’s painting The Wedding at Cana.

Greenaway uses his vast technological vocabulary to give a virtuosic audio-visual tour of these two great paintings as he re-imagines and re-presents them chiefly by altering lighting conditions to explore their space.

At one point in The Last Supper, the light emerges from Jesus’ figure alone, casting shadows over the entire tableaux as if it existed in the round. Later, a point of light dances through the space, leaving a vapor trail, that traces the path it has traveled.

Composition, too, is explored through the illumination of various aspects of the painting against a dark ground. The apostles’ heads alone are lit, then their feet. Their hands­—gesturing, pointing, clutching—are bathed in a warm light, a rhythm of abstract shapes playing across the surface of the painting. In this way Greenaway literally gives each aspect of the painting its moment in the sun.

In one compelling contrast, diagonal shafts of light emerge from the grid in the ceiling in the painting, filtering over Jesus and his apostles from behind and presenting them as solid sculptural masses. This is followed by a similar movement of light from a window in the chapel, which moves flatly over the painting, revealing it as a two-dimensional surface. Although the painted surface is flat, somehow for a moment one expects the figures again to be sculpted volumes. It is this kind of set-up that delights Greenaway. Look what can be done with light and space! In these moments the experience is truly magnificent.

To go from The Last Supper to The Wedding at Cana, as presented here, is to go from looking at a painting with a friend to looking through the eyes of a literal-minded museum docent. A didactic audio track picks apart the painting’s composition, effectively killing the mood. Not only is the delight of mutual discovery gone, the content of the lecture is a major disappointment. To hear Greenaway tell it, Veronese’s chief accomplishment as a painter is to put the figure of Jesus smack-dab in the middle of his composition.

installation shot of installation shot of Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway as installed in Milan in 2008
installation shot of installation shot of Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway as installed in Milan in 2008

The most magical moment of the entire experience is in the final scene. The 120-plus figures that make up the composition of Wedding at Cana are reduced to bright white contour lines against a black ground. For a moment they are held there, in their actual relationship on the surface of the painting. But then something marvelous happens, as we go from seeing this world head-on to seeing it from a partial bird’s-eye view, as if lifted twenty feet above the wedding party. Looking on from above, one can’t help but smile in wonder at the vast three-dimensional space Veronese compressed into his painting.

To levitate above a painting and for a moment to experience the world of that panting in three dimensions is Greenaway’s great gift to us. In showing us his exploration of light, space, volume and composition, Greenaway succeeds because he trusts us to make discoveries alongside him. It is only in the telling, when this essential process of discovery is undermined, that Greenaway’s vision fails.

At its best, Greenaway’s work remains a tremendous homage to painting. In all its technological wizardry, it never loses sight of the greatest wizardry of all: the painter’s depiction of a three-dimensional world on an unapologetically two-dimensional surface.