Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway, Professor of Film at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Peter Greenaway (b. 1942), born in Newport, Wales, and based in Amsterdam and London, is one of the great film directors of our time, an innovative curator, and a challenging philosopher of cinema. Considered to be an avant-gardist who has made forays into mainstream cinema, Peter Greenaway's unique visual language reveals a strong influence from his training as a painter, as well as structural linguistics and philosophy. Openly critical of the Hollywood approach to filmmaking, he believes that cinema should offer much more beyond the confines of narrative. As a believer in the subversive power of the image, Greenaway expresses his critical reaction to our contemporary visual culture in different forms, ranging from paintings and films, to television, multimedia formats, opera, and, most recently, VJ-ing. His constant exploration of the cinematic medium has resulted in the creation of incredibly rich imagery, heavily influenced by Renaissance painting and architecture, that explores the limits of provocative eroticism, sexual pleasure, and death.

Peter Greenaway uses references to the past as a way to talk about the present time and to draw comparisons with our current civilization, although this dialectical aspect of his work has not always been fully understood. His films include The Falls (1980), The Draughtman's Contract (1982), The Belly of an Architect (1987), Drowning By Numbers (1988), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), Prospero's Books (1991), The Baby of Mâcon (1993), The Pillow Book (1996), 8½ Women (1999), and Nightwatching (2007). He has curated Flying Out Of This World (Paris, 1992), The Physical Self (Rotterdam, 1992), 100 Objects To Represent The World (Vienna 1993), and Stairs (Geneva, 1994; Munich, 1995). He has also directed the opera Writing to Vermeer (1999) and completed the ambitious multimedia project The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003).

Peter Greenaway decided to become a painter at the age of twelve and later trained as a muralist at the Walthamstow College of Art. During this time, painting and draughtsmanship became central to his practice. He also began to use collage as a form of expressing his belief that painting could be as multi-layered as works of poetry and literature, structuring his subject matter by rejecting the usual narrative mode. In addition, he became interested in music, text, and temporality, and was strongly drawn towards cinematic vocabulary.

At the age of twenty-two, Peter Greenaway decided to focus on a career within the film industry, buying his first 16mm Bolex camera. After being rejected by the Royal College of Art film school, he started working as a film editor and director at the Central Office of Information, a UK government department responsible for making public information films. This experience was soon translated into his obsessive exploration of the absurdity of bureaucracies, as well as the possibilities of the documentary form. Parallel to his day job, Peter Greenaway soon started making his first experimental short films. In Train (1966) he created a mechanical ballet out of a steam train pulling into a station, while Tree (1966) focused on a tree growing amidst the concrete streets of London. The voice-over in Windows (1975) recounts various incidents of defenestration while showing an idyllic landscape through a set of window.

In 1980, Peter Greenaway made his feature film debut with a mockumentary in ninety-two parts entitled The Falls. Set in the future following a mysterious "Violent Unknown Event," the film focuses on a group of people suffering from symptoms such as inexplicable ailments, dreaming of water, and an obsession with birds and flying. Using his own particular approach to storytelling, Peter Greenaway simultaneously exposes the blind spots of bureaucracies and their ways of cataloguing and systematizing people and objects. The film also features Michael Nyman's musical score, a collaboration that continued in several of Greenaway's subsequent films.

Peter Greenaway's critical breakthrough occurred in 1982 with the seventeenth century drama The Draughtsman's Contract, establishing him as one of the most innovative and important filmmakers of today. The murder mystery begins as a story about a young painter who is contracted by a wealthy lady, Mrs. Herbert, to produce a series of drawings of her estranged husband's estate. The painter becomes involved in an affair with her, and after the discovery of Mr. Herbert's dead body, the artist's sketches provide valuable but ambiguous clues for identifying the potential perpetrator.

The inspiration for Greenaway's next feature film, A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), came from a tape showing the decay of a mouse, a monkey with an amputated leg, and a borrowed photograph of a smiling woman standing between enigmatic identical twins. The film starts with a car crash in which two twin brothers' wives die, and we follow them as they get involved with a woman who seems to be responsible for the accident and is recovering after a leg amputation. The brothers are both zoologists and spend most of their time photographing decaying animals as a way to deal with their loss. The woman, whom they both share, soon becomes pregnant with twins herself. Thus the structure of the film's imagery follows the idea of symmetry throughout the film. The search for the other half, mistaken identities, and the concept of substitution all play a role in this visual essay, confronting viewers with the human zoo, its passions, perversions, and the inevitability of death.

The Belly of an Architect (1987) focuses on obsession and architecture, two important concepts in Peter Greenaway's vocabulary. A middle-aged American architect, Stourley Kracklite, arrives in Italy to work on an exhibition about the work of a French architect, Etienne-Louis Boullée. Over the course of nine months, he suffers from severe stomach pain mirroring his marital crisis and misery at becoming old and fat, all the while being surrounded by perfectionist Roman art and architecture. As he becomes obsessed by the work of an architect who turned into a controversial figure, and an inspiration for Albert Speer, Kracklite seems to be unable to digest reality, a fact that becomes evident in his own creativity, leaving behind a man who comes to lose everything he ever cared about.

Game rules and number counting as part of imaginary folklore mark Peter Greenaway's next film, Drowning by Numbers (1988), a black comedy about the lives of three generations of women from the same family, the Cissie Colpitts. Each of them murders a husband by drowning him, conspiring with the coroner to hide the murders. This film was followed by Greenaway's most successful film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), considered by many to be a criticism of Thatcherism and consumerism in general. The plot centers on a young woman who is married to a vicious gangster, and who has an affair with a gentle bookshop owner. The film is constructed theatrically, creating a staged sensuality that hypnotizes audiences with the sadism on display. Voyeurism and guilt combine to confront viewers with their own perversions, bringing out the inhumanity in humanity. The closing scene of a dinner feast blurs the boundaries between love and disgust, as revenge becomes the only weapon left in the hands of the surviving lover.

Peter Greenaway's radical interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest was to be seen in Prospero's Books (1991), which used a unique method for translating theatrical narrative into cinematic terms. Using an electronic paintbox, the filmic image was turned into a series of intertextual double exposures, creating a complex, dense, and multi-layered structure. Considered one of Greenaway's most experimental features, the film combines elements of mime, dance, and opera to bring to life the story of an exiled magician whose daughter falls in love with the son of his enemy. Prospero, played by Sir John Gielgud, whose life ambition was to make this film, is allowed to keep only a small fragment of his precious library. His voice describes the books in the course of the film, filling the screen with magical calligraphies and diagrams.

Greenaway's next feature film was the highly controversial The Baby of Mâcon (1993), a satire of seventeenth century life which was interpreted by some critics as a comment on the origins of contemporary narrative in violent Christian traditions. Depicting a morality play staged in front of the seventeenth century public, it tells the story of a town saved from famine after a baby is born to an old woman. The baby becomes exploited by the woman's daughter, who claims to have delivered it herself after immaculate conception and begins selling blessings to the town's desperate citizens. After a series of unforeseen events, the baby falls into the hands of the local church, and is ultimately murdered. The town is once again struck by famine. Thus viewers of both the play and the film are confronted with corruption on all levels of society.

Once again employing the electronic paintbox, The Pillow Book (1996) was an adaptation of the tenth century erotic Japanese literary classic. According to Peter Greenaway, the film is a celebration of literature and flesh, of sex and text. The film follows an unusual young woman, Nagiko, a Japanese model whose search for pleasure from various lovers includes her passion to have them write on her body. She meets her perfect lover in a young British translator who provokes her into writing books on his body. When a publisher rejects her writings on paper, she decides to use her lover's body to transmit the story and seduce the publisher. In this, her bi-cultural identity plays an important part as she navigates through Chinese and Japanese cultural heritage, exploring it on both psychological and physical levels. Following this, Peter Greenaway explored the subject of archetypal male sexual fantasies with 8 ½ Women (1999). After the death of his wife, a wealthy businessman and his son open their own private harem in Geneva, inspired by Fellini's 8 ½. Very soon, the roles are reversed, turning masters into slaves, as the women trade their freedoms by exhausting male sexual fantasies.

In 2003, Peter Greenaway completed his multimedia project The Tulse Luper Suitcases, encompassing three feature films, a TV series, ninety-two DVDs, and several CD-ROMs and books. Tulse Luper (“the wolf on your pulse”) is a recurring off-stage character in Greenaway's early films, and can be seen as a sort of alter ego, a professional writer whose life has been reconstructed from the objects found in his ninety-two suitcases, ninety-two being the atomic number of uranium. The main idea behind this project was to show the subjective nature of history, since, according to Peter Greenaway, there is no such thing as history, but only historians. The boundary-pushing visual style of these three films offers viewers a visual experience that is part of a process of discovering the origin of a story through audio-visual collage.

In the last few years, Peter Greenaway has focused on an artistic project entitled Nine Classic Paintings, in which he employs groundbreaking image technology to explore nine masterpieces from the Renaissance to Jackson Pollock. Focusing on Rembrandt's painting The Nightwatch, Greenaway's feature Nightwatching (2007) provides one possible interpretation of the mystery behind this famous painting, as well as the devastating influence it might have had on the life of its creator. J'Accuse (2008) takes the form of a documentary criticizing today's visual illiteracy and the hypocritical society in which Rembrandt created his art. Next, Greenaway explored Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. In 2009, the Venice Bienniale presented Greenaway's digital exploration of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, a unique lesson in art history combining art, filmmaking, and theater. While close-up images were projected onto a full-scale replica of the original work, an audio track brought to life the imaginary conversations the guests and servants might have had on the day of Christ's first miracle of turning water into wine. With this work, Peter Greenaway once again proved himself to be one of the great artists of our time, unafraid of experimenting with new modes of expression while continuing to investigate the role of art in our culture.