Review: Peter Greenaway at Melbourne International Arts Festival

Peter Greenaway’s filmic installation of a replica of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498) is on as part of The Melbourne International Arts Festival.  He aims to set up a dialogue between painting and film – as the short written introduction outside the exhibition explains. Greenaway suggests that Da Vinci was at the forefront of developments in media in his own time and extrapolates this to infer that if he were alive today he would be using media other than paint.  So the question is asked before one enters the space -‘what can film do that painting can’t do?’ or ‘what kinds of meaning can arise through the media of film that are unavailable through paint?’  These are interesting questions and not just historically. The relationship of form to meaning has deep philosophical roots and is of great relevance for artists for whom choices of media are proliferating almost exponentially. 

Appreciating a work like this may be enhanced by but does not require religious conviction. If you have ever felt greed, betrayal, despair, powerlessness, or hoped for a new beginning, this painting has something for you.

The experience of Greenaway’s interpretation left me unconvinced that film can get us places that painting cannot although it is indisputable that film can do things that are impossible with paint. Although it seems unfair to generalise about film from one instance, Greenaway’s cinematic interpretation of The Last Supper gave no greater depth to the work. What it did do was inspire awe at the range of effects that the medium of film now has at its disposal. The changing emphases of tone, hue, and temperature showed well the elements at the disposal of the artist in creating a two dimensional work. The addition of line to the work I felt was clunky and more like an instructional video than a work of art. The narrative highlighting of separate figures or elements such as hands could be seen as unfolding elements of the painting to us, however the result is that the viewer is herded didactically –unlike the way a painting operates. The silent availability of painting allows, but does not insist, the viewer to uncover relationships of form and subsequently meaning.  

This brings us to the startling difference between film and painting. Film always has a temporal dimension, whereas painting does not. As soon as a section of Greenaway’s work began to loop there is the experience ‘oh, I’ve seen this already’. Film is usually viewed a limited number of times.  It unfolds in the same way each time. This is directly opposite to the way paintings are encountered.  Each time one sees the same painting, it is possible to approach it differently. Last time you may have been intrigued by the colour, this time perhaps you realise some element of narrative or allusion, next time – perhaps in the company of different people or a different hanging, it may be the contrast of forms that engages you. Or more likely, these will all be subliminal and you may not know why a painting always holds your interest.

Finally, although film and painting may share the confines of two dimensional representation, each use surface quite differently. Surface is of crucial importance in a painting, and contributes significantly to the viewer’s experience of it. Mark, gesture, texture or the camouflage these are integral to the work, and relate directly to the intention of the artist. Film does not have a surface – it is an immaterial form. Greenaway removed the possibility of any direct relationship with surface by distancing his audience with a barrier several metres from the installation. This was probably wise, as to replicate surface is not possible. A segment of the film showing close ups of the surface of the painting was interesting  in a forensic kind of a way. Separating surface from form can tell us about it but cannot give the experience of it. 

Film and painting remain essentially different media, each with strengths of their own. New media is often given a kind of teleological importance – coming after painting’s development it must be somehow an upgrade from paint and brushes. A more helpful view would allow the language of painting to be heard in its contemporary voice, and the language of new media to say something that is not purely about itself. An arranged marriage such as this leaves both partners the less.


By Alexandra Sassé

Alexandra Sassé

Alexandra Sassé is a painter and printmaker living in Melbourne. She has studied fine art at the VCA and Monash University. Her current project stems from an unfashionable obsession with the perceptual portrait, on which she is doing a studio -based PHD at Monash. Her work is hung eclectically in various group exhibitions, some of them Important Ones. She has work in private collections in Melbourne and the USA, and several commissioned pieces in the Melbourne Cricket Club.