Leonardo at the movies

For five centuries Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper has stood majestically still on the walls of a Milanese friary’s dining hall, the only disturbance the slow flaking of its priceless paint.

Now British filmmaker Peter Greenaway has been granted permission to wheel in projectors and bring to life the hidden stories he sees in the wall painting.

Greenaway (65) announced last month that he is planning to use dramatic lighting, projections and recordings of actors’ voices to transform the 9m-wide depiction of the moment Christ announced that one apostle would betray him into something close to a film.

Instead of capturing just one moment, as Da Vinci did, Greenaway will turn The Last Supper into a narrative that stretches from Christ’s birth to his crucifixion, with voice given to each disciple’s thoughts.

Unsurprisingly for a film director who served up a dead man at a different kind of dinner party in his 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Greenaway is courting fresh controversy when his project goes on show in April and May.

He plans to project on to the refectory walls “raw and heavy” images of Christ’s genitalia and naked crucifixion, taken from Da Vinci’s other works. It will be “an act of some significance that some people might regard as blasphemous”, he said at the launch in London.

The project is part of an attempt by Greenaway to animate the world’s greatest paintings.
His targets include Picasso’s Guernica, Monet’s Water Lilies in Madrid and a Jackson Pollock in New York. He has even asked the Vatican if he can bring the series to a climax by projecting on to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

The project, which has returned Greenaway to his beginnings as a painter, started in his adopted home town of Amsterdam where in 2006 he animated Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch. His show opens with a cock crowing at dawn. Light plays across figures and the voices of men are heard. There are explosions, infernos and rain before night comes and the show ends with the midnight bell.

“We burned it, flooded it and covered it in blood,” he recalled. “But if you go there today you will find it completely untouched.

“I just want to get people to look again at art. Most people are visually undereducated and after the age of 11 schoolchildren are encouraged to concentrate on texts, while visual arts are regarded as simply decorative and entertaining.”

He has permission to tackle Veronese’s Marriage of Cana in the Louvre in Paris this autumn and Las Meninas by Velazquez at the Prado in Madrid in 2009. He is in talks over the rest of his series and wants to take Guernica from Madrid to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. “I have to have a Cecil B de Mille Cinerama canvas,” he said. “Otherwise it just doesn’t work.”

His plans have divided the art world, however.

“Quite frankly, I don’t see how these paintings, which have been good enough to move generations of people, are improved by the interventions of any filmmaker,” said the British art critic Brian Sewell. “The Central Restoration Institute in Rome [which is supervising the Last Supper project] is out of its mind to allow this. They can’t predict the effect this will have on an extremely fragile painting.”

But Martin Kemp, professor of history of art at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a Da Vinci expert, said the painter would have approved. “Greenaway has a terrific understanding of how painters work, which is not true of every filmmaker. There’s no need to be stuffy about these things. If Leonardo had been around he would have been into moving images. You get the sense that he wanted his paintings to move.”

Greenaway plans to make a sun rise behind Christ’s head and light will fall and rise on the famous hand gestures “to give the notion of a symphony of togetherness”.

The arrangement of the objects on the disciples’ table will be projected as a constellation on the ceiling and the seven-minute show will climax with the light fading over the group and the shadows of each disciple stretching across the floor. Because of the mural’s fragility—Da Vinci painted it directly on to a dry wall 00 only 25 people at a time will be able to watch, but it will be relayed to thousands more.

“The idea is to make connections between 8 000 years of art and 112 years of cinema,” Greenaway said. “We have a lot of detractors who have told us we shouldn’t turn Leonardo da Vinci into a film, but the sense of possible aesthetic combat is very exciting.”—

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