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Peter Greenaway’s Leonardo’s Last Supper

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Peter Greenaway’s <em>Leonardo’s Last Supper</em>

Peter Greenaway has referred to his “Ten Classic Paintings” series, where the art-obsessed director tweaks and fusses with some of mankind’s greatest treasures, “a dialogue between 8,000 years of art and 112 years of cinema.” This is a big, mostly empty statement, tinged with the kind of arrogance that might make such a grand undertaking work, as well as the vagueness that assures it doesn’t. That’s at least the case with his third installment, casting a spotlight on Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which runs at the Park Avenue Armory through January 6.

I haven’t seen Greenaway’s first two installations, one on Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the other on a copy of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Yet it seems pretty likely that they involved more thought and insight than this one, which arrives colorfully bloated with hot air. The Rembrandt project so over-spilled its boundaries that it resulted in two films, encompassing the narrative skullduggery of Nightwatching and the art-history lesson/detective yarn of Rembrandt’s J’Accuse. The Veronese one makes an inexplicable appearance near the end of this show, seemingly showing up solely to relieve its winded counterpart.

Despite the billing and the obvious size of the project’s budget (the presentation space looks great), Leonardo’s Last Supper isn’t 45 minutes dedicated to picking at Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Cushioned by two tangentially related sideshows taking up two thirds of the running time, it’s actually 15 minutes of bright lights flashed and dark shadows cast, messing with the painting’s form, twisting its meanings, teasing out plotlines that are never clarified or explained. Abandoning the highly speculative sub-textual extrapolation that made Rembrandt’s J’Accuse so interesting, it settles for a purely visual experience, one which serves its professed purpose while offering no information to latch onto.

Greenaway claims that his motivation for this series, beyond distracting himself from his waning interest in film, was to reeducate a populace that has forgotten how to look at art. Never mind whether many people ever had this gift in the first place, or that this kind of grouchy haughtiness isn’t going to make his target laypersons any more receptive to learning. He can be a good advocate for art when he tries, less a teacher than a inspired fabulist, revealing tangled webs of buried meaning through the transposition of familiar plots. I have no idea how many of the fantastic claims Rembrandt’s J’Accuse presented have any basis, but the reminder of the potential for such layered complexity lurking inside in a familiar image was inspiring. It made all art seemed like something to dig into, rather than something to glance over.

Leonardo’s Last Supper doesn’t achieve this. It contains similar cues and symbolic gestures, but they’re never provided with any informational background. At one point blood runs across the table. At another the disciples’ hands glow yellow while the painting goes black, indicating some kind of mysterious complicity. It’s all visually thrilling, at least the first time (it loops twice, another sign of how overstretched this whole thing is), but it’s self-reflexive elucidation, highlighting the potential for illumination without actually illuminating anything. Greenaway has a real opportunity here to do something, to offer a highbrow to rejoinder to The Da Vinci Code [referring to the book primarly] or even just give the world’s most expensive art lecture. Instead he presents a glorified laser light show, which feels half-assed despite its booming complexity.

It doesn’t help that so little time is spent on the painting itself. The 45 minutes are actually divided into three segments, each of roughly equal length. The first sequence, “Italy of the Cities,” was conceived for the Italian pavilion at this year’s Shanghai World Expo. Projected onto eight screens, each vacillating between different images, it’s a dizzying, overwhelming experience, like two weeks of tourism compressed into 15 minutes. It also does its part to contribute to the overall cheesiness of the show, matching glances of classical architecture with footage of a loincloth clad hunk leaping through raindrops in slow motion.

It’s possible to imagine how this ties into Leonardo’s Last Supper. One focuses on the external, zooming about exteriors with no attempt at entry; another takes place in a building within a building, inside a structure recreating Milan’s Santa Maria della Grazia, where the painting has lived for 500 years. Both seem to incite the audience toward new perspectives, through overdriven transience or creative reinterpretation. Yet it’s more likely that “Italy of the Cities” is on display for less calculated reasons. Namely that it’s by Greenaway, it’s recent, features Italy and some suggestion of classicism.

This concept of a haphazard structure is cemented by the last section, as the crowd is shuffled back out of the makeshift convent, where the “cloned” painting hangs behind a glowing reproduction of the supper table. Here the eight screens that exhibited “Italy of the Cities” light up again. The program reverts to a condensed version of his Wedding at Cana piece, exploring Veronese’s portrayal of Jesus turning water into wine. It’s here that the presentation comes closest to its full potential, turning the painting into a multimedia scratch sheet for a roving exploration of its ideas, mysteries, and themes.

The 15 minutes that focus on Wedding at Cana despite their inexplicability, are the most interesting of the show. They definitively accomplish Greenaway’s stated goal. The painting is carved into sectors, its characters numbered and circled in red, markers appearing to show the significance of certain lines of perspective. Greenaway points out the placement of Veronese himself, the only character painted entirely in white, while speculating on the relationship between Jesus and the wedded couple. Had this treatment been applied to Leonardo’s Last Supper itself, the flashy prelude might have been acceptable as a precursor to something more substantial. As it stands, it’s the weakest part of a disorganized, scattershot multimedia assault, a forceful imprecation to look closer that ultimately signifies nothing.

Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway continues through January 6 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, at 67th Street. For more information, click here.