He kept saying, "I don't know whether you ever saw a film called..." when referring to his own films, he told us that we would be celebrating the Millennium either six years too early or four years too late and, declaring he felt rather constrained by the standard two-hour film format, talked about his new project, which will consist of just the four feature films, a 16-part television series, four or five CD-Roms and a website. Well, what did you really expect from the man who brought us The Baby of Macon?
What you might not expect from him, though, is an exhibition of fine art. But this is what had brought him to Edinburgh, the opening of "Peter Greenaway: Artworks 63-98", a retrospective of work produced, unbeknown to much of his cinema audience, during his 35-year career as a film-maker. While it may come as no surprise that Greenaway's training was in fine art, given the visual complexity and experimentation of his films, it's something of a shock to discover that as well as making 49 films and videos over the years, including his best-known works The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), Greenaway has produced a huge body of paintings, collages, photographs and installations. The work on show is but a tiny fraction of it.
On the day the exhibition opened, Edinburgh was in a bit of a Greenaway frenzy. The free tickets for his talk had all been snapped up well in advance, while the private view at the University's Talbot Rice Gallery was packed to the gills. "Which one is he?" I was asked an improbable number of times. And if the experience of Cornerhouse in Manchester, where the exhibition originated, is anything to go by, the gallery can expect brisk business. Doubling the usual number of visitors for its exhibitions, the Greenaway show also sold 700 rather than the customary 150 exhibition catalogues.
Unsurprisingly, given the reason for his visit, Greenaway did his best to be seen as a visual artist who paints, makes films, curates exhibitions, stages operas and writes books, rather than as a film-maker who paints. Rather perversely, this involved giving cinema a thorough drubbing and turning his back on the medium for which he's best known. Whatever question I put to him, it was back to this theme. Why, for example, did he turn to a career in film after graduating from Walthamstow School of Art? "Cinema gave me the opportunity not just to deal with the imagery but with text as well, but I've somehow always felt that my moving into cinema would only be temporary... I really do believe that the history of cinema has no comparison with the history of art. We have had 2,000 years of image- making in terms of painting, which has produced thousands of different ideas more profound and entertaining than anything cinema has produced so far.
"I'm very pessimistic now about cinema. There are no interesting film- makers anymore. They have all gone to the new media." And it's tricky to ask Greenaway about the relationship between the films that we love (or loathe) him for and his paintings, as he refuses to admit any distinction between them. He relishes recounting a story about another journalist who suggested that they "leave the films aside for a minute and concentrate on the art" and, when someone tells him that scenes from his films look like works of art, he has trouble containing his glee. "See, you've fallen into the trap!"
So I ask one of the exhibition curators instead. Alan Woods goes along with Greenaway's no-boundaries-between-different-media position. "The more you get into what he does, the more one film hits another film, a film hits a painting. He might have an idea for a film from a painting or maybe a film gets made and then it becomes a painting afterwards. So Drowning By Numbers existed as a set of ideas before in The Falls [a series of collages from the late Seventies], then later as a book, The Fear of Drowning, some of which led back to The Falls. There's a genuine interrelation here and some consistent ideas you can follow through."
Inevitably, most visitors to the exhibition will come because of Greenaway's films and will see the paintings as a supplement to the moving images, the thinking behind them. But there are works relating to films most of us will never see, such as the rather neurotic map collages and images in A Walk Through H, relating to the little-known and very strange-sounding film of the same name from 1978. Equally, some images, like the beautiful blue painting Icarus Falling into Water (1997), relate to films not yet made, ideas which may or may not surface in future projects.
For the artist, the still images are a chance for what he calls "a private investigation" of the themes that obsess him, without concern for narrative structure or the box office. They're quieter, less shocking and esoteric than the films and, maybe if they weren't by Greenaway, we'd pass them by.
But it's as impossible to see them objectively in this way as it is to unravel where one idea begins and ends up in Greenaway's work. As Alan Woods puts it, if you know the films and see the exhibition, you realise that "everything's behind everything, but it's not present, it's always underneath". If that sounds a bit befuddling, it won't once you've seen this show. Take the most recent work in the exhibition, Half Woman, a painting of a naked female lower torso. Greenaway painted the picture after finding a branch in his garden shaped like this while he was writing the script for his forthcoming film Eight and a Half Women, a homage to Fellini's 81/2.
The painting was to be seen in the film, although in the end it won't be, but it's clearly one of the threads feeding into Greenaway's work about Fellini's fantasies of female beauty. You can appreciate the film without this painting and vice versa, but seeing the different elements gives a rare insight into the way Greenaway works. He doesn't storyboard, he doesn't give off-pat explanations of the films, he loathes our reliance on narrative. As Woods puts it, "He gets everything together and then invents." It helps enormously, of course, if the trees in your garden grow branches shaped like naked female torsos.
`Peter Greenaway: Artworks 63-98' is at the Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, until 20 February (0131-650 2211)Reuse content