The Wedding at Cana: Peter Greenaway’s Vision

June 22, 2009 · Print This Article

Although it sounds like I won’t be missing much by not attending the Venice Biennale this year (oh hell, who am I kidding? or any year except one, when someone else was paying for it), based on some of the write-ups I’ve read, there are two events taking place there that I truly regret not being able to see for myself.

The first is Swoon’s Huck Finn-style floating barge, which I blogged about a few weeks ago and which has received in-depth coverage in New York magazine. More than I want to see the thing itself, though, I think what I really want is to be friends with Swoon and her deck mates.

Peter Greenaway at the

Peter Greenaway at the Palladian Refectory

The second is Peter Greenaway’s multimedia installation based on the Italian Mannerist Paolo Veronese’s gigantic painting, The Wedding Feast at Cana. Now, Greenaway isn’t someone I’d necessarily want to be buds with (I don’t think I could keep up), but he’s long been one of my favorite filmmakers (though I admit it seems a bit strange to talk about work like Greenaway’s in terms of ‘favorites,’ like it’s an ice cream flavor or something.) His early films, like The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), A Zed and Two Naughts (1985), The Belly of an Architect (1987) Drowning by Numbers (1988) and his most mainstream “commercial” success, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) are the films I know best; his later forays into installation and site-specific projects I’m less familiar with due to sheer lack of access to them.

Greenaway’s take on Wedding at Cana is part of an ambitious multi-part project in which the filmmaker/artist plans to bring nine classic art historical paintings to life in a modern context. Greenaway has already created installations revisiting Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (via Greenaway’s film and an accompanying installation Nightwatching, made in 2006) and Leonardo’s The Last Supper in Milan (in a 2008 installation titled The Last Supper).

Greenaway’s “vision” of the Wedding takes place at the Palladian Refectory, the site where Veronese’s painting was first situated. Now, however, a facsimile of the work, commissioned by the Giorgio Cini Foundation, exists where the original once stood. Greenaway’s website describes the installation thusly:

“The Wedding at Cana facsimile, set in the original architectural context for which it had been conceived – the Palladian Refectory – offers Peter Greenaway the opportunity for an innovative and original interpretation via a state-of-the-art interplay of images, lighting, music, voices and sounds that will seem to emerge directly from the painting and the walls of the Refectory. The performance – a true multimedia event lasting about 50 minutes – makes spectators relive the episode of the marriage feast at Cana where Christ accomplished his first miracle, as narrated in the Gospel of John. Greenaway points out to the public the painting’s scores of characters, from the servants preparing dishes, to the banquet guests, to the guests of honor – Jesus Christ and his mother Mary – seated at the center of the painting’s architectural composition, in an on-going crescendo culminating in the narration’s crucial moment: the miracle of water turning into wine.”

Here’s a small image of the Paolo Veronese painting that’s under Greenaway’s scrutiny:


(click on the picture to be taken directly to the Wikipedia site containing a much larger file, which also gives you the ability to zoom in close on different parts of the painting).

There is an unofficial and no doubt surreptitiously shot video of the piece online to be found here; the quality is not great of course, but it gave me a little sense of what Greenaway is trying to accomplish. Better still, Roberta Smith has written a lengthy article on Greenaway’s Venice installation for the NYT today; it contains a great full-color installation shot which I’m too chicken to lift and post here. And Wired U.K. posted a brief, tech-oriented interview with Greenaway about the project last week.

I’d like to make a special request to any of you out there who went or are planning to go to Venice, saw this installation, and would care to comment on it, good or bad. Make me jealous: tell me all about the piece. What was it like? Did you think it worked? Was it smart or silly, and/or did you enjoy it?


5 thoughts on “The Wedding at Cana: Peter Greenaway’s Vision”

  1. Lisa says:

    I saw the Greenaway project and, although admittedly pretty and fun, I was way overwhelmed by the lack of content. Yes, the dissections and altered colored projections are entertaining, but the attempt to add the banal commentary of the guests in the picture made it sophomoric. But who am I to contradict the famous Roberta Smith? And I loved the Biennale overall, especially “The Collectors” at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions. Go see that instead!

  2. The side additions are less interesting than the delight of projecting a film directly ON and interacting with a painting. I find the Last Supper by Greenaway amazing. And through the metaphors of “revealing,” “light,” moving image vs still etc., quite content filled. Don’t know about the Veronese though.

  3. Claudine Ise says:

    Lisa, Mark, thanks for your comments; it’s so interesting that Lisa found Greenaway’s project here to be lacking in content–from what I’ve read of it, it sounds like that’s the case, did Smith use the term “Disneyfied” in her review? Greenaway typically has this overinvestment in content to the point where you can’t get all the references, everything on screen is super-packed in some way — but here it sounds like the worst end of that spectrum, over-investment in surface content to the detriment of the ideas. But then again maybe the main idea is, as Mark pointed out, the gleeful “travesty” of projecting a film directly on a historical painting and “remixing” it in some fashion.

  4. I don’t see how that is a “travesty” in any way. (Travesty = any grotesque or debased likeness or imitation), but rather an installation-like union of video and painting. The content in the Last Supper one appears to me to be in subtle visual metaphors of vision, rather than Greenaway’s usual rather heavy-handed literary intertextuality (which I must admit to enjoying). I was thrilled that his work seemed to be open to experimentation, celebration and less obviously textual citation. That said, I watched the Veronese stuff on youtube several times and found it more illustrative than the Leonardo. And the side bits were a bit too obvious. Cool idea anyway, though.

  5. Lee Cagley says:

    Dear Claudine –
    I saw the piece, and I must say that, though it does run a bit long in spots, it’s utterly astonishing. With a painting the size and intricacy of the Wedding at Cana, especially one that hangs as it does in the refectory well above your head, the details in the upper reaches of the painting get a bit lost. The way that Greenaway gives each character his or her due is quite generous in its humanity. His dissection of the painting’s various structures, though snazzy and eye-popping, is nevertheless perfectly valid, and based upon quite a mean bit of scholarship. His imagined mental conversations between these 16th century aristocrats and their servants are, pretty much intentionally, banal, and perfectly in keeping with a picture in which crowds of gorgeously clothed fops and courtesans vie with one another in an intricate interplay of sexual politics, and the only person facing the viewer is Christ. Best of all, though, is how much more engaging the painting is after the 50-minute projection than before it, leaving you with no Disneyfication or dumbing down whatsoever. You get to walk up to it afterward and stare up at it with a far more interesting set of contexts from which to judge it, and that is a precious gift indeed. In my view, you should go see it. The rest of the Biennale, with few exceptions, is tedious, puerile, jejune, and flabbergastingly out of touch. It only shows how far we have lost our way artistically in our desperate effort to embrace irony at any cost. No wonder Greenaway has found solace in revisiting works of art that are so much a part of the Western Canon they are almost invisible to us now. His is the truly courageous stance among the many pretenders in evidence in the Giardini.

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