By ROBERTA SMITH
The filmmaker Peter Greenaway transforms a life-size digital replica of the Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese’s epic “Wedding at Cana” into a vivid theatrical swirl.
In Venice, Peter Greenaway Takes Veronese’s Figures Out to Play
VENICE — You can love it or hate it. You can dismiss it as mediocre art, Disneyfied kitsch or a flamboyant denigration of site-specific video installation.
If you’re in town for the Venice Biennale, don’t miss the marriage of High Renaissance painting and advanced technology that is “The Wedding at Cana,” by the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway. If nothing else, it is possibly the best unmanned art history lecture you’ll ever experience.
Subtitled “A Vision by Peter Greenaway,” this 50-minute digital extravaganza of light, sound, theatrical illusion and formal dissection is being projected onto and around a full-scale replica of “The Wedding at Cana,” Paolo Veronese’s immense and revered landmark of Western painting.
The replica is a wonder of digital reproduction itself. It covers the great rear wall of the Benedictine refectory on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, exactly where the original hung from 1562, when Veronese finished it, until 1797. That’s when Napoleon had it taken down, cut up and carted back to Paris as war booty. It was sent to the Louvre, where its mastery of light and color entranced French painters and influenced the development of Impressionism.
Like the original, the clone measures nearly 24 feet by 33 feet; it appears to include even the seams of Napoleon’s segmentation. It was painstakingly created pixel by pixel and installed in the restored refectory — a Palladian design — on Sept. 11, 2007, 210 years to the day after its removal. It couldn’t have been better timed for Mr. Greenaway.
“The Wedding at Cana” is the third in Mr. Greenaway’s series “Nine Classical Painting Revisited,” which is being produced by Change Performing Arts, with Franco Laera as curator. The first visit, in 2006, focused on Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The second, last year, involved a full-scale replica of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” at Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan (after a one-night projection on the actual fresco that raised art historians’ hackles).
Somehow I missed news of this ambitious project. In Venice for the biennale, and hearing that the Greenaway was worth seeing, I went not knowing what to expect, sat down with other visitors on the refectory’s cool marble floor, leaned back, looked up and, as the piece began, felt my jaw drop.
Palladio’s grand space came alive with images, music, words and animated diagrams and special effects that proceeded to parse from every possible angle the Veronese’s pictorial composition, social structure and drama, which is ostensibly about Jesus’ first miracle, the turning of water into wine, but is really about the lifestyles of the rich and aristocratic of 16th-century Venice. No part of the Veronese image actually moves, but the piece never rests. Close-ups of the faces in the painting, appearing on the side walls between Palladio’s great corniced windows, alternate with apparitional red diagrams of portions of the composition, seen as if from above. There are also subtitles for the whispered conversations that Mr. Greenaway has written for the 126 wedding guests, servants, onlookers and wedding crashers depicted by Veronese.
The conversations, which are signaled by red lines snaking through the crowd on the cloned image, are mostly banal and hokey: Renaissance snark covering real estate, fashion, traffic, the costs of feeding so many people, this new thing called the fork and the strange miracle worker. Jesus has shown up with his mother rather than a wife, and six followers who are fishermen, and positioned himself in the exact center of the event, which all causes quite a bit of sniffing among the other guests. But they like the post-miracle wine: “No cloudiness.” “It’s certainly got body.” “Tastes like a south-facing mountain grape.”
On the veranda above the feast the servants worry about the rising number of guests (800, not 500), the whereabouts of co-workers, the disposition of the new china and the dwindling supplies; they provide perhaps the most convincing sense of immediacy and material culture. The impact of the drama is amplified with some raging fire and a thundering downpour that lasts a tad too long, alluding to other biblical events.
But it is the formal and spatial parsing of the image, its figures, hefty architectural setting and deep vista that is most enthralling. Often familiar art historical ploys are used, but it is still amazing to see so many of them put through their paces so quickly and effortlessly and at actual scale.
In one sequence the figures are numbered and Jesus’ centrality is confirmed with a series of radiating red lines. In another, color drains from the image and the work’s grand spatial recession is measured in white lines on grisaille. There is a shift to stark white on black and the image rotates, so that we are once more above it. Different figure groups are highlighted: you see, for example, that the arrangement of Jesus and his party presages the Last Supper.
Different reactions to the miracle — skepticism, fear, devotion — are singled out. Details are brought forward, like the two men craning out from the upper reaches of the columned edifice who have, for eternity, their own overhead view. Or the meat carver whose knife is positioned directly over Jesus’ head.
To a certain extent all the digital manipulation works its own temporary miracles. Even the inane conversation begins to resemble things that might have floated through Veronese’s mind as he determined his figures’ attire, body language and facial expression. And instead of the usual art-history-lecture spoon-feeding of information, you have the illusion of seeing and thinking for yourself with heightened powers. The next stop should be the Louvre and the real thing.
Mr. Greenaway’s plans or hopes for the future include Picasso’s “Guernica,” Seurat’s “Grande Jatte,” works by Pollock and Monet, Velázquez’s “Meninas” and maybe even Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” Stay tuned.