Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
December 3, 2010-January 6, 2011
Peter Greenaway always talks a great game.
The flamboyant British director—whom art-house filmgoers might remember from The Draughtsman’s Contract, Prospero’s Books and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover—has always described most films in the past hundred-plus years as “illustrated texts,” and calls for a new kind of “cinema language.”
Greenaway’s own films, contrarily, emphasize the visual (no surprise, since he is a trained painter) and de-emphasize narrative (no surprise, since his plots are faintly ludicrous). He also used “paintbox” effects and superimposing images long before the technology was available to do that sort of thing right.
Now that technology has caught up to him (he says that 21st century cinematic technology is wasted on cinema), Greenaway has branched out into art installations. Leonardo’s Last Supper at the Park Avenue Armory is the first of these installations to cross the ocean. Three have been seen in Europe, with another seven more to go, all dissections of “classic“ paintings. It’s a combination art history lesson and art appreciation class taught by Greenaway himself, which means that, for all the useful information you receive, there’s also throwaway stuff Greenaway thinks is equally important, but which simply clutters up things.
The installation is like a live-action version of his last film, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!, which made the unconvincing case that the Dutch master’s The Night Watch was created to unearth a murderer, with Greenaway hosting a 17th century episode of CSI. What Leonardo’s Last Supper presents are typical Greenaway tropes: superimposing images, overbearing music, mania for minutiae, and the deconstruction of art in front of our eyes.
If the 45-minute “show” that constitutes Leonardo’s Last Supper seems thin, it’s not for lack of trying. A travelogue through Italian art and architecture, which makes up the prologue, is dazzlingly imagined, if too familiar to anyone who‘s seen one of Greenaway‘s films. Next, the audience enters another section of the Armory’s vast Drill Hall to encounter a replica of the painting itself set in a replica of the dome of Refectory of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, where Leonardo‘s masterpiece resides.
That’s not all. Set up in front of the painting’s “clone” is an installation of a table and objects that mirror what’s on the table in Leonardo’s artwork (no, the audience doesn’t have to reenact the poses of Jesus and the disciples). On the opposite wall, hi-def digital photography probes Leonardo’s disintegrating paint job in massive close-up, so we see the paint that has been coming off the wall for the past 500 years, even before the painting was finished. There’s also a light show “performed” on the replica of the painting, accentuating Jesus and the disciples’ hands and feet, or showing, through computer trickery, shadows adorning the painting as light is thrown on it from certain angles.
After Greenaway runs out of tricks, the audience goes back to the front space for an “epilogue,” in which Greenaway dissects Veronese’s great painting currently in the Louvre, Wedding at Cana, bringing in numerology, apocrypha, and even a rainstorm to show A) what a genius Veronese was and B) what a genius Greenaway is. It’s all cleverly done, even if the lingering question remains: what does it mean? It doesn’t give any further illumination into the art of Leonardo, Veronese or even Greenaway, for that matter. Since it resembles Greenaway’s own film work, the prevailing sensation is of being trapped inside, say, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, his massive, three-part cinematic exercise in megalomania.
In the last analysis, Leonardo’s Last Supper is like being taught an art history class by a professor with ADD: it’s full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifies very little. That being said, I can’t wait for the next of Greenaway’s wrongheaded but provocative art installations to get to New York.