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Peter Greenaway - Biography

Peter Greenaway, Ph.D., born in Newport, Wales on April 5, 1942 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 with a wide access to mainstream cinema, Peter Greenaway's unique visual language reveals a strong influence by his training as a painter, structural linguistics and philosophy. Being openly critical of the 'Hollywood' approach to filmmaking, he believes the cinema should offer much more outside its slavery of narrative. As an artist who is a believer in the subversive power of the image, Peter Greenaway expresses his critical relation to our current visual culture in different forms – from paintings and films, to television, multimedia formats, opera, and most recently VJ-ing. The result of his constant explorations of the cinematic medium is the creation of incredibly rich imagery influenced by Renaissance painting, its architecture and juxtaposition to nature exploring 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 Belly of an Architect (1987), The Draughtman's Contract (1982), 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), and 8½ Women (1999). He has curated Flying Out Of This World (Paris 1992), The Physical Self (Rotterdam 1992), 100 Objects To Represent The World(Vienna 1993), Stairs (Geneva 1994, Munich 1995). Peter Greenaway's latest projects have been Writing to Vermeer (Opera with Saskia Boddeke) and The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003).

Peter Greenaway decided to become a painter at the age of twelve and entered the Walthamstow College of Art. He specialized in easel and mural, and painting and draughtsmanship became central to his practice and investigation carried on ever since, along with the production of novels, films and operas. He used collage as a main form to express his belief that painting could be as multi-layered as the works of poetry and literature, structuring his subject matter by rejecting the usual narrative mode. Nevertheless, his interest was as much directed toward music, text and temporality, and hence was strongly drawn to the cinematic vocabulary.

At the age of twenty-two, Peter Greenaway decided to focus his future development within the film industry, buying his first 16mm Bolex camera. Having been rejected by the Royal College of Art film school, he started his career as a film editor and director at the Central Office of Information, a UK government department responsible for making public information films. This work experience was soon translated into his obsessive exploration of the absurdity of bureaucracies, as well as the potentialities of the documentary form. Parallel to his daily job, Peter Greenaway soon started making his first experimental short films. In Train (1966) he created a mechanical ballet with the steam train coming into the station, while Tree (1966) focused on the tree living against the concrete on the streets of London. The voice-over in Windows (1975) told a story about the incidence of defenestration in the town of W. while showing the idyllic landscapes filmed through the windows.

In 1980, Peter Greenaway made his feature film debut with a mockumentary in 92 parts entitled The Falls. Set in the future, the film shows part of a directory of people who had suffered a mysterious 'Violent Unknown Event', followed by the symptoms such as dreaming of water, ailments, and obsession with birds and flying. Using his particular way to tell a story, Peter Greenaway simultaneously created a film that exposes the blind spots of bureaucracies and their ways to catalog and systematize people and objects. The film also features Michael Nyman's musical score, a collaboration that strongly marked several of Peter Greenaway's subsequent films.

Peter Greenaway's critical breakthrough occurred in 1982 with the 17th century drama The Draughtsman's Contract, establishing him as one of the most innovative and important filmmakers today. This murder mystery begins as a story about a young painter contracted by a wealthy lady, Mrs. Herbert, to produce a series of drawings of her estranged husband's estate. The painter becomes much more involved into the life on the estate, becoming her bed companion as well. The story about power and deceit gets complicated after the discovery of Mr. Herbert's dead body, turning the artist's sketches into valuable but still ambiguous clues in discovering the potential perpetrator.

The inspiration for Peter Greenaway's next feature film A Zed & Two Noughts (1985) came from a tape showing the decay of a mouse, a monkey with one amputated leg, and a borrowed photograph of a smiling woman standing between enigmatic identical twins. The film starts with a car crash in which both of the twin brothers' wives die, and we follow them getting 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 the time photographing decaying animals, as a way to deal with their loss. The woman they both share soon becomes pregnant with twins herself, and the structure of the film image follows the idea of symmetry throughout the film. The search for the other half, mistaken identities, as well as substitution, all play a role in one of the most incredible visual essays confronting the viewer 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-age American architect, Stourley Kracklite, arrives in Italy to work on an exhibition about the work of a French architect, Boullée. During the course of nine months, his stomach brings him severe pains, parallel to the crisis he goes through in his marriage, the misery he feels for being old and fat, surrounded by the perfectionist Roman art and architecture. Becoming obsessed by the work of an architect who turned into a controversial figure, being an inspiration for Albert Speer, Kracklite seems to be unable to digest reality, a fact that becomes evident in his own creativity, leaving us with a man who is soon 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 life of three generations of women of the same family carrying the same name, Cissie Colpitts. Each of them murders a husband by drowning, having to conspire with the coroner to hide the murders. This film was followed by Peter Greenaway's most successful film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), considered by many to be a critic of Thacherism and consumerism in general. Here lust, food, sex and murder all meet in the restaurant La Hollandais, used by Peter Greenaway to set a stage to display the relationship between a young woman married to a vicious gangster, and her affair with a gentle bookshop owner. The film is constructed theatrically, creating a stage and theatrical sensuality that keeps one hypnotized by the displayed sadism. Voyeurism and guilt come together, confronting the viewer with the truth about his/her own perversions, bringing out the inhumanity hidden within humanity. The closing scene of a dinner feast blurs the border between love and disgust, while 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), showing a unique method used to translate the narrative of a play into the cinematic medium. The image was turned into a series of intertextual double exposures using the electronic paintbox, creating a dense and multi-layered structure too complex to be described in words. Considered to be one of Peter Greenaway's most experimental features, it combines 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 the making of this film, is allowed to keep only a small fragment of his precious library. His voice describes the books in the course of the movie, filling the screen with magical calligraphies and diagrams.

Peter Greenaway's next feature film was the highly controversial The Baby of Mâcon (1993), a satire of life in the 17th century, interpreted by some as a statement about the origins of contemporary narrative in violent Christian tradition. Depicting a morality play staged in front of the 17th century public, it tells a story of a town saved from famine after a baby was born by an old woman. The baby becomes exploited by the woman's daughter who claims to have delivered it herself after immaculate conception, selling blessings to the desperate citizens. After a series of unforeseen events, the baby will fall into the hands of the local church to be further exploited. The unfortunate town will be in danger once again when the famine returns after the baby is murdered, while the viewers of both the play and the film are being confronted with the corruption in all levels of society.

Peter Greenaway will use once again the electronic paintbox in The Pillow Book (1996), an adaptation of the erotic Japanese literary classic from the 10th century. According to Peter Greenaway, this film should be seen as 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 will meet her perfect lover in a young British translator who will provoke her to change the order of her passion and start writing books on his body. The drama comes from a publisher rejecting her writings on paper, making her decide 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. The subject of archetypal male sexual fantasies will be further explored by Peter Greenaway in his 8 ½ Women (1999), where he depicts the amorality of two wealthy cultures on the geographical axis Kyoto-Geneva. 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 will be switched, turning masters into slaves, showing the women able to trade their freedoms by exhausting male sexual fantasies.

In 2003, Peter Greenaway presented his latest multimedia project entitled The Tulse Luper Suitcases including three feature films, TV series, 92 DVDs, CD-ROMs and books. Tulse Luper (“the wolf on your pulse”) is a recurring off-stage character in his 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 92 suitcases. 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. Being also a history of uranium, the number of suitcases came from its atomic number. The visual style of those three films seems to be pushing the borders even farther, offering a viewer a visual experience that should be watched as a process of discovering the origin of a story in the form of audio-visual collage.

In the last years, Peter Greenaway has focused on his new artistic project entitled 'Nine classic paintings', in which he employs groundbreaking image technology to explore nine masterpieces from the Renaissance to Jackson Pollock. His first project was his vision of Rembrandt's painting 'The Nightwatch' (2006, Amsterdam), while he devoted two parallel film projects to Rembrandt: in the feature Nightwatching (2007) we see one possible interpretation of the mystery behind this famous painting, as well as a devastating influence it might have had on the life of its creator; J'Accuse (2008) has the form of a documentary that simultaneously criticizes our visual illiteracy today and the hypocritical society in which Rembrandt created his art. The next painting in the line of Peter Greenaway's exploration was Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper' (2008, Milan). The latest Venice Bienniale brought his newest art project casting Paolo Veronese’s 'The Wedding at Cana' (2009), offering a unique lesson in art history combining art, filmmaking and theater. The visuals are being projected on a full-scale digital replica of the original work, an incredible achievement on its own as it restores the original painting pixel by pixel. The audio brings to life imagined possible conversations the guests and the servants might have had at the day of Christ's first miracle of turning water into wine. With this last work, Peter Greenaway has shown himself once again to be one of the great artists of our time, not being afraid to experiment with the new means of expression, while continuing to investigate the role of art in our culture.

Peter Greenaway is a professor of cinema studies at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducts an Intensive Summer Seminar.