An Old Master With New Eyes: Peter Greenaway Interprets Leonardo, by Way of Avatar

On Dec. 2, Peter Greenaway, known for visually exuberant, game-changing films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and The Draughtsman’s Contract, will stage a multimedia presentation based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at the Park Avenue Armory. Set within a full-scale replica of the Refectory of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, the home of the original painting, a full-scale facsimile of The Last Supper is “brought to life,” organizers promise, through sound, light and theatrical illusion. The event ($15 admission) runs through Jan. 6.

We talked to the director about the project, its problems and what he thinks about movies today.


You’re better known as a director. For people familiar with your films, how does this project relate to them?

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. Cinema has to change its behavior and its stance. I need to look over my shoulder and see what representations of the visual image have been in the past. What is the dialogue in the past between text and image, and what can painting now do with cinema?


How did the project get started?

The year 2006 was Rembrandt’s 400th anniversary, and the Rijkmuseum is home of his most famous, Nightwatch. The whole of Holland celebrated Rembrandt’s painting. We did Nightwatching, a post-Star Wars, post-Avatar [presentation of it], using technology to make it applicable to the laptop generation. It was very successful. Milan called and said, ‘Why don’t you come and do your business on the most famous painting indeed?’


Tell us about The Last Supper.

I’ve been looking at this painting for a very, very long time. Roman Catholic Italy creates a commission for da Vinci, who is already extremely famous in 1398, and he sets out to make the definitive image. There are many images of this scene, back to 100 A.D., and I think by general consensus we all agree that Leonardo’s is the most successful. It has a great sense of the importance [of the dinner].


And that is?

Thirteen men on a Thursday evening in an out-of-town Jerusalem restaurant meet to chew the fat about what happened to them in the last three weeks. And there’s only one person who knows what’s going to happen to them, and that’s Christ. A lot of artists have painted it as an incidental event, or as a religious event … but Leonardo gets it right.



It’s an extraordinary puzzle painting. We must remember all the excitement of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Apocryphal nonsense, but it awakened the public to the idea that there’s something going on behind the scenes in the painting.


Since you’ve brought up Dan Brown, do you believe the book’s contention that Mary Magdalene is in the painting?

We worked on a similar project with Paolo Veronese’s The Marriage at Cana, and it’s not, it’s the marriage of Christ. The early Christian fathers found this totally unacceptable, so they desperately denied it. But to be a rabbi with some notion of credibility, you have to be a family man. Christ was a rabbi. Veronese was taken up by the inquisition for this. Dan Brown blew the lid off the kettle, but it’s a very old idea.


O.K., a rude question. What if people see your Last Supper and never go see the real one? Are you making a Disney version of a masterpiece?

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.


But you are a director, and you teach cinema. What do your students think of this?

There’s a phrase that says that to the young, there is no painting before Jackson Pollock and no cinema before Quentin Tarantino. I’m addressing questions of visual literacy.


You’re very passionate about this.

I take a missionary stance. I sincerely believe most people are visually illiterate. They do not know what they are looking at. 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.’


What’s wrong with that?

The digital revolution has taught us that pictures are incredibly important … the sooner we realize that, the better. The image masters need to come forward and take it away from the text masters.


I’m sorry, I have to ask. Are you going to make any more movies?

Cinema is now wasted. Scorsese still makes the same film as Griffith’s.


I think you just got addicted to the art world.

I come from a long line of artists, and I love my family. I love art, and it is an addiction and all-consuming.


Your team attempted to replicate the painting meticulously, flaws and all. Was the condition a problem?

A noted art critic saw it 15 years after it was painted and said it was falling off the wall, and it’s been falling off the wall ever since. [It raises] the issues of decay and history and time.


What would you tell a New Yorker about coming to the Park Avenue Armory?

I suspect that they’ve never really seen this painting. They’re familiar with it from chocolate boxes. Sometimes when you see an image so many times, you tend not to look at it anymore. It’s an image that enjoys and deserves its reputation because it’s so incredibly powerful.


What’s your goal?

I want to get people to look and to look. As an audience I would like them to come out feeling richer, to understand why these paintings are important and that we are all associated with this legacy of the Old Masters. I want them to think, ‘This is for us.’ An Old Master With New Eyes: Peter Greenaway Interprets Leonardo, by Way of Avatar