This, for me, was the central point of “Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway”, currently running at the Park Avenue Armory here in New York City. As noted in the program by Park Avenue Armory Consulting Artistic Director, Kristy Edmunds, the exhibit “is a provocation to revisit out relationship to our visual literacy in the 21st Century.”
The exhibit–or ‘experience,’ as it is called by staff at the Armory–takes place in a structure containing two adjoined spaces, and happens in three acts. In the first, video, audio and images of Italian art, architecture and culture are projected on the screens hanging from the ceiling, walls which make up the structure and spaces on the floor. For me, this set a frame for a society deeply committed to art, iconography, religion, symmetry and the exploration of the purposes and roles of mankind in the natural world.
After (maybe?) ten minutes, the screens in the first space go dark, and through an arched passageway, we heard music through the rear of the structure, which was also surrounded by screens and a multitude of images. As we passed through the arch, we also saw a long table on a slightly raised platform. The table was completely white, including the cups, ewers, pieces of bread and dishes, mimicking the table in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which was projected on a wall at the far end of the table. (I learned later that the wall was built to resemble the north wall of a refectory in a convent in Milan which originally housed the painting.) However, it doesn’t seem sufficient to say that Last Supper was merely projected. It moved, but for me, the movement of the image was so transformative that even though it was technically cinematic, it became more than that in my mind.
This painting is one of the most recognized pieces in all of Western art, so watching it come alive, morph and evolve would have been jarring were not the presentation so beautiful. Light sources within the painting were closed then opened, with sunlight passing through as it might over the course of a day. Jesus, the apostles and Mary all seemed to move before my eyes, and it appeared entirely possible that the painting was a still frame removed from a video of the actual dinner. I have seen this painting hundreds of times over the course of my life, but it occurred to me here that I had never really looked at it. I had never stepped inside of it, grasped the emotion of the moment, considered how and why Da Vinci made the choices he did, or even thought that there might be something left out of the painting I saw versus the painting created by Da Vinci. It turned out there was. Though The Last Supper was done between 1494 and 1498, a door was added to the refectory in 1652 which cut right into the center bottom portion of the painting, removing the section which showed Jesus’s feet under the table. For some reason, I walked away thinking that the feet were the most beautiful thing in the entire exhibit.
In the third and final act, we are returned to the front half of the exhibit structure, and the focus is on Paolo Veronese’s Wedding at Cana. In a departure from The Last Supper presentation, this act includes a narrative of the painting, detailing pieces of its history, the event it depicts, its significance and context. I am far less familiar with this painting than I thought I was with The Last Supper, so the experience of surprise and wonder at learning more about it and taking the time to truly look at it was not so transformative. Again, light was shifted, pieces were isolated, figures were zoomed in on, and music continued to play for a heightened sensory experience. I almost wish a narrative was also provided for The Last Supper section of the exhibit–not until reading the program notes did I learn about some of the mythology and history surrounding the painting itself, and it changed the way I remembered the painting. Then again, watching the painting come alive was exhilarating enough, and perhaps listening to a narrative would have been too much.
One thing which I have failed to mention so far is the audio experience of the exhibit. Music and sound plays throughout, setting the tone and the mood for perceiving the visual images. My one annoyance was that, perhaps because of the sound, people felt free to talk and have loud conversations, and about things completely unrelated to the exhibit. The music so enhanced my experience that at points I was left wondering why art museums don’t play music in the galleries. After conceding that perhaps it is in an effort not to impede or overly inform the way someone understands a work of art, I realized it is also because it can encourage disruptive chatter.
The concept of visual literacy played a central role in the exhibit. I was forced to think about how I look at a painting in a way that is totally different from the circumstances under which it was corrected. I don’t see a political statement when I look at Wedding at Cana, and I accept the artistic choices rather than question if they hold a deeper meaning. As I watched Last Supper move, I was reminded of the uniqueness of a moving image. Back when Da Vinci was working, moving pictures were not even an option. They simply did not exist. When I look at Last Supper, I immediately and subconsciously make the distinction that this is a still image as opposed to a moving image, but what if there were no alternative? I commented earlier that it seemed to me that the painting might be a still frame from a video of a dinner, but to Da Vinci, this essentially was the video. Many people were not literate in his day, and performing art exists only within the moments of it being performed. Painting was the medium he had to use to tell a story and fix it in time. We will never know what Da Vinci would have made with the multimedia, but with Leonardo’s Last Supper, we not only get a glimpse of what might have been, we see more clearly into his age and ours.