Venice, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore
The vision began, appropriately enough, in a boat.
In Venice, of course, one would be hard pressed not to begin in a boat. But this necessity became more meaningful as a prelude to visiting Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, a “vision” by Peter Greenaway, held in the refectory of the Palladio-designed monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore during the 2009 Venice Biennale. Water, whether in pools, fountains or baths, has always had a special place in the work of Greenaway, the acclaimed director, librettist, curator, VJ, and now, vision-maker. 1 For Greenaway, water represents the various fluids that pass in-and-out as our bodies go through the life cycle: birth, sex, eating, eliminating, death. But it also stands for cleansing, renewal, redemption and miracles. All these great themes of Greenaway’s film work are united again in his ongoing series “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited,” inaugurated in 2006. The Wedding at Cana was the third to take place.
The title “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited” sounds reassuringly straightforward and, despite its ambitions, the project is rooted in easily identifiable concerns. Greenaway, who trained as an artist in the 1960s (as a muralist, according to his biography), has for some time been railing against what he calls “visual illiteracy.” This emerges from a larger critique of cinema: In interviews, Greenaway argues that today’s directors have largely subsumed image to narrative, resulting in visual imagery that shies away from complexity and encourages audience passivity. As a result of his growing disenchantment with conventional film, the last 15 years have seen Greenaway producing more experimental work, much of it performance-based, that uses new media to deliver what he calls a “post-cinema” experience. Greenaway’s recent live VJ gigs, for example, are intended to release the body from its normal spectatorial inertness and also to create a pure visceral excitement about images. 2
On the surface, “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited” might not seem to fit with these other strands of Greenaway’s practice. It revisits some of the most iconic paintings of Western art — first up was Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) at the Rijksmuseum, and second was Leonardo’s The Last Supper (1498) in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan — thus ensuring that Greenaway remains knee-deep in narrative. (Even if Greenaway dislikes conventional film narratives, he retains a fondness for painted ones and for exploring them in his films — a forensic interest that connects his 1982 The Draughtsman’s Contract to his 2008 whodunit Rembrandt’s J’Accuse.) Yet the “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited” project is not so far removed from Greenaway’s VJ work: both deploy similar strategies — new technologies and multiple screens — with the goal of stimulating a sense of curiosity and wonder about images. And “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited” also works to redress what art historians like to call “visual de-skilling.” Greenaway evidently wants both to amuse and to instruct, revealing details of composition, structure and subject matter, as he amazes.
That the revisitings actually come to pass seems to be nothing short of . . . miraculous. These are projects of daunting logistical complexity even before the creative work begins, since those in charge of their country’s heritage are understandably worried about allowing projections onto precious works. The access that Greenaway was granted to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is surely unprecedented: he was reportedly allowed to work with the painting every Friday for several hours over a three-month period. 3 For his second revisiting, for one night only, Greenaway was controversially granted permission to project images onto the surface of Leonardo’s fragile The Last Supper. For the rest of that event, he used a clone, created by the company Factum Arte, a feat that has been repeated with this third revisiting. For The Wedding at Cana that we see upon entering the monastery refectory at San Giorgio Maggiore is also a clone, an exact 1:1 physical reproduction of such high resolution that it even captures textural details like Veronese’s brush-strokes; the original Wedding remains in the Louvre, where it was taken as booty after Napoleon’s defeat of Venice in 1798. 4 Hence, even before Greenaway’s third revisiting begins, we are given a treat: The Wedding at Cana in situ, an experience that has not been available for over two hundred years. The painting becomes a mural again.
One result is that we immediately understand how Veronese conceived of his mural with its real-life setting in mind. (The painting was executed in 1563 at the tail end of the monastery complex’s construction, from 1540 to 1563; Palladio’s adjoining Church of San Giorgio Maggiore was finished later.) The refectory itself is a spare if grand salone, with windows on the sidewalls, a heavy cornice and cross-vaulted ceiling, and Veronese initially makes several nods to the existing architecture: in the painting’s foreground, for instance, the Doric portico’s columns reference the refectory window pilasters, and its pediment perfectly aligns with that of the window. But venture deeper into Veronese’s pictorial space, and a change in mood occurs. Simple Doric gives way to exuberant Corinthian, and we see that the scene is set for a far more splendid event than the monastery typically hosted.
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a painting that more lovingly pays tribute to material richness, its surface effects rendered in such dazzling hues that one art historian has likened them to the “bright brass music of Giovanni Gabrieli” (and, probably not coincidentally, it is Gabrieli’s music that accompanies Greenaway’s vision). 5 Although, as we will see, there are some important aesthetic differences between Veronese’s and Greenaway’s treatments, the love of opulence, complexity and laden tables directly connects them. Moreover, at 21’10” by 32’6”, The Wedding at Cana has unmistakably cinematic dimensions, perfectly filling its “frame” from the top of the salone’s wooden screen to its cornice. It is “wide screen,” as Greenaway might say.
Greenaway’s attraction to this specific painting becomes clear. Yet what precisely will Greenaway’s vision be? How will he establish his “dialogue” with it? A sense of heightened anticipation is built into the event, which unfolds for the audience much like a pilgrimage. After arriving at Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore by boat and entering the complex, we traverse two interconnected cloisters, ascend a grand stairway and pass through a massive entranceway into a vestibule. An inner door frames our first glimpse of The Wedding at Cana beyond. We move into the salone and take our “seats” on a wooden platform in the centre. As the lights dim and the projections begin, we sink back, heads swivelling to take in the main “screen,” with The Wedding, as well as the refectory’s two sidewalls, each of which has three perfectly-placed projections, sometimes synchronized and sometimes not. The whole event brings together dialogue, music, animation, diagrams, sound, atmospheric lighting and special effects, and lasts 50 minutes; the audience sits through two showings, the first in Italian (with subtitles), and the second in English. It comprises three modes, or phases, although these overlap and intertwine.
The first mode might be described as character-driven, an exposition (of sorts) of the events surrounding the miracle of Christ’s transformation of water into wine from the perspective of those populating the painting’s fringes. In this, Greenaway is spoiled for choice. The Wedding depicts 126 figures ranging from the Virgin Mary and the disciples to wedding guests to servants to musicians to spectators to dogs and a cat. In fact, the scene, as Veronese portrays it, positively heaves with life as characters hang off balconies, poke through porticos and lean over balustrades. Greenaway tells their stories, picking out ancillary figures or groups, and summoning them up to “speak” in projections on the sidewalls. We become privy to fragments of their thoughts and conversations. By the time the vision plays out a second time in English, the voices seem less cacophonous and the story of the miracle emerges, rooted, amusingly, in a mounting domestic crisis: we listen in as household staff, who have spent days preparing for the feast, fret about not having enough wine for all the guests who have turned up.
But the conversations, which do not rise above the mundane, constitute only a small portion of what unfolds. From the beginning, a second phase or mode is also at play. This mode can be described as analytic: the whole time that the context for the miracle is being set up, Greenaway is also tirelessly probing and exposing the painting’s underlying architecture. He uses light boxes to highlight various scenes or groupings. He shows us the picture plane with all figures in black outlined in red, and then in white. The image then tilts upwards 90 degrees so we see the ground plane, with these same figures now fleshed out and occupying precise locations in space. Soon after, the webs of geometric lines that arrange the painting are drawn out sharply in red; Christ’s face, at number 075, is the anchor at the centre. Guided by Greenaway, we begin to see past the relatively undifferentiated mass of figures that first greets us, and to decipher the organizational logic of Veronese’s composition and the means by which he constructs his pictorial space.
The third and last phase, like the second, is analytic, except that it is a demonstration of the illusionistic powers of contemporary image-makers and the tools they have to make two-dimensional space appear three-dimensional. Streaming orange lights literally dance circles round figures and architectural features, darting behind or wrapping around them, illuminating some and casting others into relief, shadow or darkness. With almost godlike authority (and one senses the relish with which he did it) Greenaway goes on to subject The Wedding to a series of special effects. The image is wiped and dissolved, fades in and out. Lights like search beams or television fuzz move across its surface. And, as the show reaches its climax, Greenaway’s gestures become biblical not only in theme but in scale. His own vision increasingly asserts itself and he moves into a much darker, more sublime mode than anything suggested in Veronese’s bright brass. He sets The Wedding on fire — a cracking fire that burns fiercely in the background, flames licking upwards, turning the sky black. The flames recede to be replaced by bright jabs of lightning. Thunder roars. Rain engulfs the figures. Lights dart across the painting’s surface, like comets trailing phosphorus dust. And, as the music rings out, figures and details begin to lose their delineation like someone pulling a thread on the sweater. The painting is undone, line-by-line, until only the face of Christ remains. He sits alone. Drums roll. Fade to black.
The Wedding at Cana is compelling, moving and, dare I say, enjoyable, moving between abstract games of deconstruction and intimate tableaux, between the banal and the sacred. Miracles mix with social history and advanced technology. Yet, since my return from Venice, I have found myself struggling to describe the experience of it. Partially this is an issue of language: I am sure there is a technical terminology for all of the filmic effects deployed, but without knowing it, words fail me, something I suspect that would not totally displease Greenaway. But the event bends genres more generally, too. It is not cinema (exactly). It is not theatre (exactly). It is not installation (exactly). Friends and colleagues look at me with interest and no little bafflement as I try to explain it, efforts that inevitably end with hand gestures as if I’m trying to recreate the space itself.
Perhaps worrying about descriptive categories misses the point. Half of me thinks it does — and it would certainly be easier to simply accept the idea of these works as “visions,” the outcome of Greenaway’s unique path and preoccupations as an artist, especially his concern, literally, with vision and image. But the other half holds that the difficulty in classifying these revisitings is telling because, quite simply, it shouldn’t be. We are the inheritors of the expanded fields of sculpture and of cinema. We are the generation of multimedia, multiscreen, on-site installation. And while the recent New Year had critics scrambling to agree what was “new” about art in the Noughties, most agreed that the real story was the realization of these kinds of installations on an evermore spectacular scale, as multimedia projects strive to be immersive (an adjective that surely deserves a place on any list of noughtie art catchphrases), to create total environments. One stand-out popular success of the last decade, for instance, Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project (2004), saw Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall transformed into its own micro-climate complete with mist, clouds and a giant “sun” of mono-frequency lamps reflected in a mirror sky.
But, however spectacular Greenaway’s revisiting of The Wedding may be, immersion is here not his game. And however much the audience is engaged and challenged, this particular work is not about another holy grail of noughtie art: interactivity. There are many elements in The Wedding that are distinctly contemporary: the use of a plurality of voices, for instance, or of fragments and snippets of conversation that build up, never perfectly, into a kind of whole. And the film obviously depends on the latest technology: the vision is brought to pass by a large production and design team. 6 But for all this, and despite the cutting-edge technology, The Wedding actually ends up feeling surprisingly old-fashioned. Rather than finding its like in contemporary practice, I end up reaching backwards for comparisons, to other forms that combine instruction with spectacle, such as son et lumière or even magic lantern shows. (And it is worth emphasizing that Greenaway does use atmospheric light to great effect: when a close-up of the servants pouring the water/wine from an amphora into cups is projected onto the sidewalls, for instance, the walls are soaked in red light.)
That contemporary installation didn’t seem the most appropriate simile is possibly a response to The Wedding’s didactic if crowd-pleasing exposure of artistic technique. Though it does so in a playful spirit, it always insists upon a certain distance between the image and us; we are meant to be spectators and we do not forget it. Greenaway somewhat cheekily signals this to us at the very beginning, when we first pass into the refectory vestibule. Two beautiful wall fountains flank the refectory door. We hear the sounds of running water; lights play across the walls apparently reflected in the fountains’ pools. So skillfully is it done that it takes a while to realize that this is an illusion created by light and sound. The fountains are dry. With this gesture, Greenaway alerts us to our entry into a visual arena where belief is best suspended and where such manufactured effects will reign.
Ultimately, however, Greenaway’s greatest trick may not be the way in which his vision alters our understanding of The Wedding at Cana but how it inflects our understanding of what lies around us. The subtle relationship that Greenaway’s “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited” series establish to site is one of its least mentioned but potentially most exciting feature, perhaps especially for architects. In his selection of classic paintings to revisit, Greenaway seems to gravitate towards those that are already sited, murals in the last two instances, and which were conceived as part of a larger architectural whole. And while this is not the case with all the works on Greenaway’s wish list, it is certainly true of the work he proposes for the series’ conclusion; almost unbelievably, negotiations are underway for Greenaway to work with Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Vatican. 7 Greenaway’s visions are thus site-specific dialogues with site-specific works, and they unlock systems of spatial ordering, visual effects and cultural meaning that ripple outwards to their immediate environment and beyond. 8
This sense — of meaning unlocking — is at work in The Wedding at Cana, which, among other things, makes us acutely aware of how, compositionally and symbolically, the Christ figure functioned as a lynchpin for the whole (the “whole” can be used here in the broadest sense to refer to the painting, the monastery complex, Venice itself). It is striking that quite unlike Veronese, Greenaway never permits us to lose sight of Christ. Light shines upon him. Light emanates from him. He and the disciples are lit by their own golden glow. Face pristine, Christ remains a fixed point around whom swirls dialogue, action and special effects. He even gets a close-up. The miracle itself is simply but beautifully portrayed, as, with a great swelling of music, the painting gives way to rippling water on which Christ’s face floats. The water fades and the image goes dark except for Christ’s face in its light box, and the wine in the foreground, glowing red like blood. Material splendor ultimately gives way to spiritual symbolism (water, wine, blood, fire, thunder, rain, light, shadow), and we end with the promise of renewal and redemption.
But renewal of what kind? Even though Greenaway’s interest is not religious, many leave with a heightened awareness of Christ’s iconic power and that of Christianity more generally — and there is more than enough room for these interpretations. To my mind, however, Greenaway’s gorgeous riff on The Wedding at Cana should be seen, at heart, as testament to the miraculous power and faith in images that fundamentally underpins Western culture. This is what Greenaway seeks to renew today, along with a collective appetite for visual complexity, layered narratives and symbol-rich imagery. It is at once a lesson and a challenge. And as I return via vaporetto from San Giorgio Maggiore to St. Mark’s Square later that day, I find myself contemplating the lagoon waters, recalling the water/wine dappling The Wedding at Cana’s surface, and marveling at the transformative power and possibility of images.