Peter Greenaway

“I have been interested in a certain melodramatic curve of flight through the air for a long time. It is the trajectory of a thrown stone. It follows the hump of a humpbacked whale from nose to tail. It’s bounded like a smooth, sheep-cropped, grassy hill.” In his introduction to the catalogue for “Le bruit des nuages” (Flying out of this world), Peter Greenaway goes on to explain the way he approached this project, which consisted of choosing a number of works from the drawings collection of the Louvre and exhibiting them in a way that mirrored the trajectory of the thrown stone. Like his films, this exhibition took a circular route, leading the spectator through a labyrinth of visual information that served, ultimately, to fuse the beginning and end points.

Greenaway divided the exhibition into nine parts, each one illustrated by a series of related drawings. Thus, for instance, in a section entitled “Les Cieux” (The skies), the viewer encountered a series of watercolors displayed together in a grid, including works by Boudin, Constable, Delacroix and Whistler. The last section, “Volant en Enfer” (Flying in hell,) consisted of darker, more sinister works, such as Prud’hon’s La Justice divine poursuivant le Crime (Divine Justice pursuing crime, 1808) or Victor Hugo’s Le Pendu (The hanged man, 1854). Yet, despite the almost inevitable richness of the individual works, what one was conscious of, above all, was the presence of the curator/director. In this case, it was clearly the imposition of a distinctly cinematic structure that set the exhibition apart from other, more traditional installations.

To begin with, there was the narrative that Greenaway imposed as the justification for his choices. Each drawing became a part of a chapter that only made sense in the context of the entire “trajectory.” Thus, a drawing like Odilon Redon’s Le Démon Ailé (The winged demon, 1860), in which an angel/devil transports a mask over a darkened city, made sense as a midpoint in this narrative, after the body has been lifted up from the earth and before it falls into hell.

At the same time, the way that Greenaway utilized the labels that describe the individual drawings also pointed to the use of individual “shots” in an overall sequence. In the beginning of each section, the labels were grouped together, followed by an arrangement of the drawings themselves. One frequently had to go back to these labels to elucidate some aspect of a particular piece. It is as if the curator were saying that the spectator should let the works function purely as images, without their art-historical trappings.

There is also a utilitarian reason why the labels were set aside: Greenaway’s use of composition, montage, and lighting demanded that the individual works be seen as units. This exhibition differed radically from the first of the Louvre’s series, entitled “Parti pris,” in which Jacques Derrida chose a series of works relating to the representation of blindness. That exhibition, entitled “Mémoires d’aveugle” (Memories of the blind), emphasized the accumulation of visual information through each particular drawing. Greenaway used his raw material to create a second narrative, one that combined all of the works in an exhibition that was both rigorously personal and defiantly cinematic.

Michael Tarantino