Peter Greenaway furthers his reach into pure visual art

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Few film directors have dipped their quills into more artistic inkpots than Peter Greenaway, the British-born auteur who during the past 30 years has cut a highbrow path through cinema, painting, books, opera and multimedia art installations. His latest project, “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited,” unites most of these strands into what the director calls an attempt to “look at painting through the eyes of a filmmaker.”

Greenaway’s movies (of which “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is the most famous) have always favored tableau-like compositions and an orgiastic use of color. “Nine Classic Paintings” extends his cinematic hand into the realm of pure visual art, using multiscreen projections and digital effects to visually deconstruct a series of masterpieces.

The project is currently making its U.S. debut with a multimedia reinterpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” on view at New York’s Park Avenue Armory through early January. Wednesday evening, Greenaway is scheduled to present clips from “The Last Supper” at the Getty Center, where he will be giving a free lecture on his multimedia endeavors, in which digital effects are projected onto the masterpiece, sometimes with music, in an effort to make the painting reach viewers in a new and fresh way.


At the heart of Greenaway’s current obsession is his desire to stimulate a new kind of visual literacy in response to what he sees as the long goodbye of traditional movies and moviegoing. “The downloading phenomenon has broken the back of the habit of going to a dark room and watching cinema,” he said in a recent interview from Amsterdam, where he is primarily based.

Greenaway’s “Last Supper” project debuted in Milan in 2008, using the real Da Vinci fresco, and has since traveled the world using a replica of the painting. The traveling installation also features a large-screen re-envisioning of Veronese’s “The Wedding at Cana.”

In 2006, the director created a multimedia project around Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The project spawned two conspiracy-minded Greenaway films — “Nightwatching” and the documentary “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse …!” — which theorize that Rembrandt encoded accusations of a murder plot in his painting.

Greenaway said he wants to tackle Picasso’s “Guernica” as the next of the nine classics, followed by a Jackson Pollock drip painting, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.”

Critics in Europe reacted favorably to the “Last Supper” project, but in the U.S., the response has been far less enthusiastic. A critic for the New York Times called the Armory installation a dud, advising potential visitors to buy a book on the painting instead.

Greenaway takes issue with the latter part of the criticism, though not necessarily for personal reasons. “People want to keep chucking books at this painting,” he said. “It’s text again, and pictures are not text. We have an opportunity to talk pictures with pictures and not let the text to get in the way.”


The filmmaker said he hopes the Getty Museum will participate in a different project devoted to the Baroque-era Dutch artist and printmaker Hendrick Goltzius. Part of the project includes a feature film that is expected to shoot in 2011, with John Malkovich and Kevin Spacey in talks to star.

Greenaway is in discussions with the Getty to host a Goltzius-themed exhibition in conjunction with the Rijksmuseum and the Royal Library in Copenhagen around the time the movie is released. The Getty has some of Goltzius’ works in its collection, and Greenaway conducted some of his research at the museum during a recent visit. [

Central to Greenaway’s exploration of Goltzius will be the Baroque artist’s use of sexually charged imagery in his attempts to pioneer new methods in printmaking.

“He was highly erotic and was creating virtually a new media,” said Greenaway. “Each new media has associated itself with erotica.”