Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Karleen Gardner

Published on December 31, 2010

  • Description:

    Walking in to the Park Avenue Armory on a rainy December day, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the building’s aged, historic 19th century brick exterior and the 21st century multimedia exhibition I was about to experience. The Armory’s mission is “to revitalize one of America’s historic treasures as a dynamic alternative arts space unlike any other in New York. Part palace, part industrial shed, the Armory is dedicated to the development and presentation of work in the visual and performing arts best realized in a non-traditional setting.” This dichotomy of the old and the new was further enhanced as I awaited entrance to the exhibition in a lounge area on a black leather modernist sofa while, looking at the deteriorating walls and ceiling, which are in the midst of restoration.

    The extremely accommodating and friendly staff asked us queue up for entrance to the show, for tickets were timed and visitors are admitted as a group on the hour. As we walked toward the doors, I looked for wall text, labels, or signage of any kind, but these were not to be found. I had, however, picked up a rather extensive brochure about the exhibition, the artist, as well as histories of the featured paintings— Leonardo’s Last Supper and Veronese’s Wedding at Cana— which, I assumed would answer any questions that I might have afterwards.

    As we were ushered into a very large dark space, I felt as if I was entering a theater, rather than an art exhibition. With the absence of introductory text or any information from the staff, I had no idea what to expect, which added a sense of excitement, wonder, and curiosity to the experience. Standing in the center of the dark room, I was suddenly immersed in sound, moving images, and colors on the walls, the floor, and on banners suspended from the ceiling. I listened to the music while continually turning in circles, following the projected movements of a male figure painting incandescent blue lines as he elegantly twirled and danced amidst abstractions of what I interpreted as water, while a dove flew overhead. It was as if the artist and his creative spirit were intermingling with the waters of the earth and the Holy Spirit. This very fluid and abstract multimedia segment introduced the upcoming exhibition themes as well as the medium—the convergence of computer generated technology, painting, film, and music.

    The melody changed and the images became those of Italy, its cities, landmarks, architecture, landscapes, and renowned artworks. I was bombarded with fast-moving pictures and the dramatic, energetic sounds of instruments. I glanced quickly, while turning to the opposite wall, the floor, and the banners in the center of the room, so as not to miss anything. The term “sensory overload” came to mind and I was reminded of the fast-paced, high-tech world in which we live. This immersive, continually changing environment was intensified through the scale and size of the both the space and the projections.

    While still moving around to take it all in, I became aware of a light coming through an arched doorway in front of me. I looked at the crowd and people were gasping and whispering as they peered into the vestibule. As we walked into the adjacent area, we encountered Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in its full glory in a nave on the far wall. But immediately before us was a three-dimensional full-scale replica of the dining table at which Christ and his disciples share their repast. This aspect adds yet another element to the exhibition—sculpture. The table is solid white as are the plates, cups, decanters, and food, yet both the table and its contents are illuminated from within, adding a dramatic element to the piece as well as a spiritual quality.
    Once again, the fast-paced projections and music begin. However, this time every aspect focused on The Last Supper, which was painted in 1498 for the the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The replica of this iconic masterpiece is situated in a space that mimics that of the Italian monastery, down to the tiles on the wall and the small window to the left of the painting. As if seeing the original fresco, you experience the sun’s rays emanating from this window, streaking the painting with light and shadows. You also observe the bright colors of the paints as they were before centuries of decay, dirt, and restoration. Through further technological effects, the painting itself gains depth and you feel as if you could walk behind the table and take a seat alongside the disciples. These figures as well as that of Christ become sculptural and appear to be three-dimensional. Greenaway brings special attention to each element of the painting by illuminating the men’s faces, feet, and hands, thus emphasizing Leonardo’s incredible rendering of these features. The triangular figure composition and one-point perspective, so characteristic of the Renaissance master, are also explored through lines, which appear to be drawn on the painting as you watch. Turning my attention to the opposite wall, I observe close-up scans of the fresco’s surface and small, peeling flakes of paint have been magnified and are projected on the walls and floor. This portion of the exhibit encourages viewers to slow down and look closely at the small details as well as looking at the painting as a whole.

    The movement of images and the effects slow down and began to darken, and through the arched doorway visitors notice lights and movement in the other gallery. The group slowly convenes in this space and observes Paolo Veronese’s Supper at Cana, commissioned by the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy, and completed in 1563. Like Leonardo’s masterpiece, Veronese’s also depicts an important biblical story, and both works depict Jesus eating a meal. Unlike the iconic Last Supper, this painting and subject matter are not as well-known. Therefore a narrator introduces the audience to the visual aspects of the artwork, the history of the painting which was plundered from Venice and now hangs in the Louvre, while also relaying the story about Jesus turning water into wine. While The Last Supper was examined on a more technical level, Supper at Cana is explored more through content including the number of figures, but also compositionally as well as in black and white. Multi-media projections and music envelope the visitor and once again encourage close looking.

    Through modern technology, visitors had the opportunity to view two Italian masterworks and look at them closely and in detail, while also seeing them from new perspectives and in an immersive environment. The original Last Supper is not easily accessible for many people and no one will ever see it as it was in 1498. Supper at Cana, plundered by Napoleon and now in Paris, will never be seen in the Venetian monastery for which it was created. Greenaway has recreated these artworks and a stimulating theatrical context that offers visitors a unique experience, of what he calls “a dialogue between painting and cinema.” I listened to visitors in the coat check line and one woman stated that she would “never look at that painting the same way again.” I overheard others talking about the colors and the special effects and how this had enhanced their appreciation of the artwork. This exhibition exemplifies a successful convergence of the historical and the contemporary and that the past and the present can complement and enhance one another as well as spark dialogue. We are reminded that although we live in a frenetic-paced world and are inundated with visual images, we should take time to slow down and savor things of interest and beauty.

Latest Comments (1)

thanks for this review

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

I’m so sorry I will miss this exhibition—from your review it sounds like it really got you to think more deeply and look more closely. Now, if you actually saw the real artwork in person, I wonder how this experience would affect you. I wish you had included an image here, even though the link to the website has a number of great ones. K

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