Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker, an artist, and a firebrand.

He is known for his fierce views on modern cinema. He has said that “most people are visually illiterate” and that “Our educational system teaches us to value text over image. And that is one of the reasons we have such an impoverished cinema.” — Greenaway in Rembrandt’s J’Accuse…!

“The downloading phenomenon has broken the back of the habit of going to a dark room and watching cinema [2]”

Now, you may think, here is a filmmaker lamenting the fact that people do not see films. But, Greenaway is quite the critic himself of the cinema.

“I sincerely believe that cinema is dead. It might have satisfied our fathers and grandfathers, but the current generation wants a non-passive acceptance of entertainment.” [4]

He has also unapologetically proclaimed that “Scorsese still makes the same film as Griffith’s” [4] and that “Bill Viola is worth ten Scorseses.” Now, having seen Bill Viola’s “Five Angels for the new Milennium” in person at the Whitney museum, I wholeheartedly agree. Viola has created a true wonder: a darkened room where immense projectors play slow-motion films of foaming water and tiny bubbles, over the backdrop of realtime music of crickets, water moving about, and other seductive night sounds. Eventually the water explodes into a person, and you realize you have been watching a person jumping into a lake, at night, in reverse.

Greenaway is dismayed at the current state of image in the world–not only of cinema, but of our appreciation for painting:

“We look at the world through the eyes of our image makers. And for 2,000 years, they have almost exclusively been painters. Most people are visually illiterate.” [1]

He hopes “to revive a visual literacy he believes modern eyes have lost when looking at paintings” [3]. His exhibit, “The Last Supper,” currently at The Park Avenue Armory (but ONLY through January 6th!)

“It has been said that the only true thing the cinema ever invented was the glance.” — Greenaway in “Rembrant J’Accuse”

We see the painting change: light and shadow streams across it as if we were watching the way the light must pass across the actual painting as the sun moves about the sky. The hands are highlighted and the rest of the painting darkened, revealing how vibrant and gestured and forceful their motions and pointed fingers are, leaving us curious and inquisitive. The figures become three dimensional in a play of light and highlighting of color across the masterpiece.

My favorite touch, though, was in the back room. If you wandered back AWAY from the main attraction and into the first room, you found the immense projectors full of a landscape of a foreign planet. The camera had zoomed in all the way down to the flakes of the tempura paint, then rushed over its surface, revealing craters and mountains, rough geographies of complex rivers and sands, as the film flies us over the textures of the paint itself. The world without contained in the brushstrokes of the world within the painting.

image via Park Ave ArmoryImage via the Park Avenue Armory

This is not Greenaway’s first exploration of old Western masterpieces of art. He has already examined “The Night Watch” by Rembrant, doing an installation at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He hopes to continue the project, ‘Nine Classical Paintings Revisited’, with such masterworks as Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Seurat’s ‘Grande Jatte.’

As you may imagine, his efforts has made many people very upset.

“A lot of people are very antagonistic about what I do, but if I were really going to tackle this subject … we have to tackle the tools of our contemporary present. We make no apologies. Take this technology, celebrate its excitements, but bring it to art. You cannot have Warhol without van Gogh, van Gogh without Vermeer, Vermeer without da Vinci. There’s a large chain, and I want to show those steps … a largesse of new visual vocabularies. [4]”

And what, exactly, is he hoping to accomplish?

We all learn to communicate in a very sophisticated way by the use of words. But most people give up any association with imagery in the educational system at about 12 or 13. It’s ‘put away your crayons.’

I want to get people to look and to look. As an audience I would like them to come out feeling richer.

The Last Supper is the piece of art that motivated more than anything else I saw in 2010, including Bliss Dance at Burning Man.

You have two days left to see it.

  1. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse – an investigation by Peter Greenaway
  2. LA Times
  3. NYTimes: ‘Last Supper’ for the Laptop Generation
  4. An Old Master With New Eyes: Peter Greenaway Interprets Leonardo, by Way of Avatar